Airbus and Boeing differ on biofuel development timeframe

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Airbus and Boeing have different expectations as to when biofuels will become commercially viable for aircraft, with the European airframer more cautious about the likelihood of early availability.

It is "a long process" that still requires testing and regulatory approval, Renee Martin-Nagle, vice-president and general counsel Airbus Americas said during the ATW-Leeham Eco-Aviation conference in Washington DC on 20 June. "I would say we're looking at least eight to 10 years."

Boeing managing director of environmental strategy Billy Glover is "more optimistic". Low-percentage biofuel blends will be certificated for commercial use before 2013, he says, referencing certification targets from the USA's Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI).

CAAFI, a consortium of government agencies, airlines, manufacturers, airports and other aviation stakeholders, works to advance the development of alternative jet fuels and has goals including certification of 100% synthetic kerosene blends by 2010 and similar biofuels in 2013. "Progress in the last two years has been remarkable," Glover says.

Boeing held its first demonstration flight with Virgin Atlantic with a 20% mix of babassu oil and coconut oil earlier this year using a General Electric CF6-powered 747-400. The company is preparing for a jatropha-sourced biofuel trial with Air New Zealand using a Rolls-Royce RB211-powered 747-400 in the fourth quarter, followed by a Continental Airlines 737 test flight in the first half of 2009.

While the airframers disagree on timing, both companies have high expectations for algae.

Other plant-based fuels, such as jatropha, will likely become commercially viable before algae, Glover says, "but once algae gets going, it has higher potential. It may not be the first, but it will be the larger volume player in 10 to 15 years."

Boeing has been focusing its efforts on accelerating the development of algae-based energy sources through the non-profit Algal Biomass Organization. Glover plans to co-chair a steering committee of the organisation, which is a non-profit group that promotes development of commercially viable transport fuels.

Martin-Nagle of Airbus lauds algae for not competing with food sources. Airbus's involvement in biofuel development includes a partnership with JetBlue Airways, Honeywell Aerospace, International Aero Engines and Honeywell fuel company UOP to research second-generation biofuels.

While feedstock has not been selected, fuel is likely to be produced from algae or vegetation. In February, Airbus flew an A380 with one of its R-R Trent 900 engines burning a 40% blend of gas-to-liquid kerosene with standard jet fuel.

Japan Airlines is to undertake a biofuel demonstration flight in Japan with Boeing and Pratt & Whitney before the end of March next year.

Biofuel blended with jet fuel will be used to power one of four P&W JT9D engines on a JAL 747-300 for the 1h demonstration flight. The type of biofuel has yet to be chosen, but JAL says it will "not compete with natural food or other resources".