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Virgin biofuel demonstration to use first generation feedstock: Boeing

Virgin Atlantic looks set to use a first-generation feedstock to evaluate biofuel alternatives for air transport, something which the UK airline had widely touted not to have any impact on land or fresh water resources.

Virgin, which before the end of the month is due to fly one of its Boeing 747s between London Heathrow and Amsterdam using a 20% blend of biofuel to power one of four GE CF6-80C2 engines, has been working with Boeing and engine manufacturer GE Aviation on the initiative since last April.

Virgin has remained tight-lipped about the choice of biofuel, claiming it intends to use a "truly sustainable type" that did not compete with food and fresh water resources.

Boeing now admits that it will not be an algae or halophyte-derived alternative, second-generation biofuels that come from renewable and sustainable feedstocks. Rather, it will be a first-generation biofuel whose feedstock is generally understood to compete with either land and water use for food crops or carbon sinks such as rainforests.

Speaking to Flight at the Singapore air show, Boeing energy and emissions technology leader Dave Daggett said the Virgin flight would definitely not use algae-derived fuel, using instead what he called a first-generation feedstock, ie soy, canola, babassu or palm oil.

 Virgin 747
© baron-inchcape/AirSpace

This is despite a UK Department for Transport official claiming in a document leaked to Flight International that the civil aviation authority - which has to conduct a full operational and technical assessment before the demonstration flight - had told him that it was algae.

"It could be algae," says Virgin Atlantic. "We will announce it [at the demonstration]."

An aviation fuels expert tells Flight that Virgin has to be careful in terms of "painting themselves into a corner over the terms they use".

He adds: "The fascinating thing, however, would be whether the fuel is hydrogenated, because that is a significant and sensible step forward. Hopefully, it will be a hydrogenated vegetable oil because that would be a good demonstration of proof of concept. Once you have proved the concept then you can develop a sustainable source of the feedstock. There is no doubt, however, that algae will come in due course as an industry alternative."

GE revealed in August there were three candidates, each using different sources and processes, one of which would be selected for ground testing in a development engine by the end of 2007. Aviation fuel experts agree that any future alternative needs to be a drop-in replacement to mix with standard kerosene. The flight will not be in revenue service and the aircraft will be due to go into heavy maintenance after the flight.

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