New Virgin company to focus on green fuel

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Sir Richard Branson’s new company Virgin Fuels is to investigate a derivative of cellulosic butanol to find a more environmentally friendly fuel for aviation.

Made from wood, straw and other biomass sources, Virgin Fuels is to study cellulosic butanol initially for road transport, but is looking to a derivative for aviation.

The butanol is produced by processing the biomass using enzymatic hydrolysis, which is the decomposition of organic compounds using water and enzymes, and then fermenting and distilling what remains. Acetone is a by-product of this process.

One problem with biomass sourced fuels is that they solidify at low temperatures and aircraft operate in -40°C (-40°F) environments.

At the unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital vehicle SpaceShipTwo’s (SS2) interior in New York last week, Branson said: “Our SS2 engineers may be able to help us in this area [of green fuel development].” His spacecraft’s developer, Scaled Composites, is investigating two potential alternatives to the rubber and nitrous oxide motor used by SS2’s precursor vehicle SpaceShipOne.

A wax-like solid fuel had been investigated for SS2’s motor, but Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn says it is “very unlikely” that wax would be used.

If no alternative motor is developed in time for the planned late-2008 start of commercial operations, SS2 will operate with the rubber, nitrous oxide system used by the Mojave Aerospace Ventures/Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne.