UK carrier Virgin Atlantic may not be the first airline to fly an algae-derived biofuel after having successfully completed the first ever part-biofuel flight late last month.
Virgin, which is striving to position itself as the world’s most sustainable airline, believes that algae is the biofuel of the future.
Although Virgin has never said it would be first to test the technology, its fuel company is keen to work with leaders in algae biofuel field and earlier this month UK regulatory sources said the fuel used in Virgin’s test flight would be algae-based.
Speaking at a media briefing in New York, Virgin president Sir Richard Branson said that while initial test data from the trial was extremely good, a planned trial using algae as a biofuel source may not involve the airline.
“Later this year - either on a Virgin aircraft or another airline - algae will be tested and we are very confident it will work. Then the challenge is to make as much quantity of it as we possibly can,” says Branson, who adds that Virgin is looking forward to working with other airlines in testing.
Virgin, which is remaining silent on its own plans, clarifies that Air New Zealand will continue the research by using an algae-based biofuel in its tests later this year.
It says: “Air New Zealand is going to be flying on algae in its next demonstration later this year. We’ve led on so many issues - it’s not a contest - it’s about carrying the learning across the industry. We’re all trying to find a solution.
“It’s very unlikely [that we’ll be the first to fly algae], because we’re not trying to. We’ve [flown on biofuel] already. It was a major demonstration of vital historical importance. [Algae] is only another type of fuel. Just let them do it and let’s see what happens.”
A Virgin General Electric CF6-powered Boeing 747-400 performed a biofuel test flight in partnership with Boeing and GE Aviation on 24 February using a 20% mix of a biofuel, composed of babassu oil and coconut oil.
Branson says ground tests showed that while it could have used a 40% biofuel, "flying a 747 we weren't going to push it that far until we had the data from 20%".
He adds that Virgin Fuels is willing to work with any company that emerges as a leader in the field, and that algae is "most likely" the best fuel of the future with no effect on the food chain.
“We are talking to a lot of sewage plants about building algae-making plants above the sewage plants and actually taking the CO2 that comes off those sewage plants and turning that into algae,” says Branson.
In January Boeing outlined its biofuel strategy, saying its first step would be to prove biofuel feasibility in a Virgin CF6-powered 747 before a trial using an Air New Zealand Rolls-Royce RB211-powered 747.
"Regarding the Air New Zealand tests, I think they would acknowledge that they wouldn't have this planned without our example," says Branson, who adds: "I think if we are the first airline to fly algae-powered aircraft customers will want to fly with us."
Virgin says Branson was referring to the first to fly passengers, rather than a trial. It adds: “Richard’s right in that the first airline to fly with passengers on biofuel will benefit commercially.”