Continental to perform biofuel test flight

Continental Airlines says it is carrying out a biofuel test flight using algae as a fuel source. The flight will occur at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, at 11:15am on 7 January. The aircraft will be a Boeing 737-800 equipped with CFM International CFM56-7B engines, and the biofuel mix used will be sourced from feedstocks including jatropha and algae.Previous airliner biofuel trials have used controversial “first-generation” feedstocks, seen as contributing to world hunger and deforestation. However last week Air New Zealand ran a test using jatropha nuts.

Continental says that the test will draw only on “sustainable, second-generation fuel sources that do not impact food crops or water resources, and do not contribute to deforestation”. In addition to airline execs, the event will be attended by Billy Glover, Boeing’s managing director in charge of environmental strategy.

First-generation biofuels made from feedstocks such as corn or palm oil have come in for sustained criticism lately. It has been suggested that these fuels displace food production from farmland, driving up food prices and so causing hardship among the poor. The resulting desire for more farmland is also seen as contributing to deforestation.

This has led to the drive for “second-generation” biofuels, ones not requiring the use of good farmland for production. Oil from the jatropha nut could possibly be cultivated in arid deserts not suitable for food production. A recent test by Air New Zealand has shown that jumbo jets will run on a 50-50 jatropha and normal jetfuel mix, but as yet there are not well-established large-scale sources of the oily nuts.