Qatar enlists Airbus in pursuit of alternative fuels

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Qatar Airways has joined forces with Airbus to launch a new environmental initiative aimed at producing biomass-to-liquid (BTL) jet fuel.

In addition to the national airline, Qatar Science & Technology Park (QSTP) and Qatar Petroleum will participate alongside Airbus in the 'Qatar Advanced Biofuel Platform' (QABP) consortium.

The consortium intends to draw up "a detailed engineering and implementation plan for economically viable and sustainable biofuel production".

It also aims to set out "a biofuel investment strategy" and "an advanced technology development programme", and to conduct "ongoing market and strategic analysis".

In parallel, work will continue on the development of gas-to-liquid (GTL) kerosene. Qatar Airways used a 50:50 blend of GTL and conventional Jet A1 kerosene to power a commercial flight of an Airbus A340-600 from London to Doha in October.

Introducing the QABP initiative at a press briefing in Doha, Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker linked its timing to the United Nations climate change conference held in Copenhagen in December.

"What was the result? Everyone talked, some individuals had a nice holiday in Copenhagen, and at the end it was 'garbage in, garbage out'," says Al Baker. "I think the world leaders failed, but the leadership in my country has vision and has supported us to prove to the world that Qatar - a small country - has big ideas and we deliver on those ideas."

Al Baker believes that entering into the production and supply of biofuels will allow his airline to "get closer and closer to the much-talked-about, but less actioned, 'carbon-neutral growth' in the near future".

Commenting on Airbus' involvement as a project partner, he says that the Franco-German airframer was "more proactive than Boeing in experimenting with alternative fuels".

The Qatar Airways chief has in the past been fiercely critical of delays to Boeing's 787 programme. However, the airline has not cancelled its 787 order and is due to take delivery of its first aircraft of the type in September 2011.

Al Baker sought to differentiate his airline's biofuel initiatives from those of Virgin Atlantic Airways, which in February 2008 flew a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam with one engine powered by a blended fuel of which biofuel (specifically babassu oil and coconut oil) composed 20%.

"We do not fuel just one tank with a certain fuel and fly it for half an hour, and then say that we were the first," he says. "When you fly an intercontinental flight with passengers with all the four engines running on an alternate fuel... that is where the difference between Virgin and Qatar Airways is."

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) also came in for criticism for lack of action on aviation's environmental impact. "The director general of IATA [Giovanni Bisignani] talks very big talk in speeches... but where is the calculation, how they will achieve it? How will they be able to do zero growth [in emissions]? Where is the technology? Who has started investing in it? This is all in the air. People can talk, but we here believe in achieving these goals with substance, with proper work."

The decision to pursue the QABP project was informed by a feasibility study embarked upon seven months ago by Qatar Airways, QSTP and US-based biofuel research company Verno Systems. The study explored existing and future production technologies for "all available bio feedstocks that would not affect the food or fresh water supply chain".

The QABP consortium has identified "specific feedstocks" that could be "developed and processed with the aim of providing access to BTL jet fuel for use by Qatar Airways". Al Baker confirms that algae was one of a "broad range" of feedstocks under consideration for a 100% BTL-based drop-in fuel, but declines to name the others.

Engine manufacturers have not been invited to participate in the QABP consortium but will become involved in its work when a selected biofuel has been produced and is ready to be tested, says Al Baker.

The Qatar Airways chief is hopeful that experimental flights deploying such biofuel can be carried out this year or next year.

He declines to specify the level of investment in the QABP initiative, but says: "You either talk about the cost, and because it is high you don't do anything about it, or you take the cost and try to use it in an efficient way for the benefit of the future generations and of our environment."