A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 has today carried out its first flight in part using biofuel, flying from London Heathrow to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport this morning.
The aircraft flew with one of its four General Electric CF6 engines using a 20% mix of biofuel developed by Seattle-based Imperium Renewables composed of babassu oil and coconut oil. It follows extensive ground testing by engine manufacturer GE Aviation and did not require any modification to the aircraft or engine.
It forms part of the joint Virgin Atlantic initiative with Boeing and engine manufacturer GE Aviation announced last April.
Speaking at the launch of the flight at an event at Heathrow on 24 February , Virgin Atlantic president Sir Richard Branson said it was a significant achievement to carry out the flight within a year of its initial announcement, but acknowledged it marked the first step in the longer term development of a biofuel replacement to existing fuels.
“Two years ago people said it was also impossible for a biofuel flight to take place. What we have proved is biofuel can be used for a flight today,” he says.
The partners say in babassu oil and coconut oil it is using oils which are environmentally and socially sustainable, and do not either compete with staple food supplies or cause deforestation.
Babassu oil comes from the nuts of the babassu tree native to Brazil, while coconut oils have been used from the Philippines.
Both products are already used in cosmetic products. Imperial Renewables president John Plaza says: “We have created a biofuel that is viable for demo flights. We think it is a good step in the right direction. A successful flight will not only validate the use of biofuels in aviation, but also provide a glimpse into the future of all fuels.”
Branson adds: “Our search for a fossil fuel replacement does not end today. What we are using today is not what we are going to be using when it goes into commercial use, it will probably be an algae. It may be other fuels that emerge, but that [algae] seems the most likely. [But] today’s flight will prove a different type of fuel can be used.”
Data will be taken from the flight in Amsterdam, ahead of scheduled maintenance work, for further analysis.
Boeing will also later this year carry out a separate biofuel flight in co-operation with Air New Zealand and Rolls-Royce.
Earlier this month Airbus carried out a Roll-Royce Trent-powered A380 flight using Shell International Petroleum’s gas-to-liquid (GTL) jet fuel as part of its alternative fuel research programme.