Boeing's biofuel strategy has greatly expanded as the airframer prepares to select a specific fuel source for two demonstration flights scheduled next year.
A series of laboratory tests completed by Boeing in the third quarter confirmed that biofuel for large aircraft can be practically derived from far more feedstocks than previously believed, says Bill Glover, Boeing's director of environmental strategy.
Boeing's tests showed that a variety of feedstocks, such as algae, can produce biofuels with kerosene-like freezing characteristics. Boeing also now believes a number of such biofuels can be affordably mass-produced for the aviation industry.
These findings have widened Boeing's vision for the future use of biofuel by airlines. Instead of a single, huge repository of biofuel feedstock to supply the world's airlines, Boeing envisions the growth of a distributed network with multiple feedstocks harvested for biofuel around the world, says Glover.
The shift in strategy may have serious implications for the future of the energy industry. Glover likens the change to the way personal computers overtook mainframes about 20 years ago.
Industrial energy production may shift from monolithic producers of petroleum to a distributed network of biofuel providers, each cultivating the feedstock most appropriate for its geography and climate, he says.
Each biofuel type will be produced to meet the industry's current fuel standard, he adds. So an airliner fuelled by one feedstock type can be refuelled by another biofuel source.
Boeing believes its role will be to serve as a catalyst for a distributed biofuel production system that it sees emerging within the next five years. Unlike an airline, Boeing does not buy fuel in bulk, but it may be able to provide other means of financing and technical support.
The first step is to prove the feasibility of biofuel-powered commercial aircraft. Boeing has teamed with Virgin Atlantic to test a General Electric-powered 747 and with Air New Zealand to test a Rolls-Royce-powered 747.
The flight-test programme is likely to consist of a single flight and consume a total of about 3,800 litres (1,000USgal) of biofuel, says Glover. The company is close to selecting a feedstock for the flight-test programme, but Glover emphasises that this biofuel type is for demonstration purposes only.