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Carriers band together for biofuel trip

By control on June 19, 2012

Air Canada and three other airlines took steps into the world of biofuels today, operating a series of flights between Canada and South America using planes powered by biofuels. Air Canada’s Airbus-supported flight, which was partially fueled by recycled cooking oil, is part of an initiative by the International Civil Aviation Organization and was undertaken to correspond with the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

"Today's flight with Air Canada proves that the aviation industry is in a strong position to reduce emissions," Airbus’ Fabrice Bregier said in a statement. "To make this a day-to-day commercial reality, it requires now a political will to foster incentives to scale up the use of sustainable biofuels and to accelerate the modernization of the air-traffic-management system. We need a clear endorsement by governments and all aviation stakeholders to venture beyond today's limitations."

ICAO Secretary General Raymond Benjamin traveled on the Air Canada flight from Toronto to Mexico City to make his way down to Rio de Janeiro for the summit. But the Toronto-Mexico flight was just one leg of a journey that involved a handful of carriers and the world’s top three airline manufacturers. Benjamin began his itinerary in Montreal, traveling on flights operated by Air Canada, Porter Airlines, Aeromexico and GOL.

“This is truly a world-first series of flights, and one which demonstrates that the whole air transport sector is working together to make significant advances across a range of sustainability issues, so that it can continue to fulfill its role as a catalyst for economic and social development, while reducing its impact on the environment,” Benjamin said in a statement.

The trip amounts to a series of test flights to show that biofuels are a viable alternative for the aviation industry. Such flights have been happening for years, but the cost of these small flight batches would be prohibitive if they were conducted on a larger scale. Currently, the cost of producing biofuels is a the main barrier to entry into the alternative fuel world; while the demand might be there at a lower cost, the supply hasn’t caught up.

According to Boeing’s Terrance Scott, 85 percent of the cost of production is tied to feedstock — growing it, cultivating it and bringing it to market. Once producers figure out how to decrease their costs, biofuels will become more affordable. More research into Jatropha, Camelina and other viable biofuel sources is needed to figure out how to increase the production yield and grow these plants more economically. Until then, test flights are simply an exercise in what could be.

“We’ve now moved beyond the technical feasibility questions. We know it works; we know there’s no engine issues; we know the performance values. The issue now is not technical, it’s quantity. There’s a demonstrated industry demand for these fuels, but there’s not enough to go around,” Scott said in a statement. “The challenge is: How do you increase capacity and reduce the price?”

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