With the aviation industry recently announcing self-imposed CO2 reduction targets, the search is on for more environmentally friendly fuels for use in passenger aircraft. A number of aircraft manufacturers and airlines have been looking at alternative fuels, such as GTL and biofuel and now Brazil’s largest airline, TAM Airlines, working together with Airbus, has successfully conducted the first Jatropha-based biofuel flight in Latin America. Airbus claims the biofuel could help reduce the aviation sector’s overall carbon footprint by up to 80 percent.

Following last year’s Aviation & Environment Summit, the aviation industry committed to self-imposed CO2 reduction targets of neutral growth from 2020, working towards a 50 percent net CO2 reduction on 2005 emissions by 2050. Although the energy use – and, as a result, greenhouse gas emissions – of the aviation sector (9 percent of the transportation sector in 2007*) is far overshadowed by the energy use of passenger vehicles, such as cars and light-duty trucks (60.4 percent*), such a reduction would have a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

The biofuel used to power the TAM Airlines A320 was a 50 percent blend of conventional aviation kerosene and locally-sourced Brazilian Jatropha-based bio-kerosene. Jatropha is seen as one of the best candidates for biofuel production as it is drought and pest resistant and produces seeds containing 27–40 percent oil, averaging 34.4 percent. As it contains several toxic compounds, it also avoids the controversy surrounding the use of traditional food crops for the production of biofuel.

The A320, powered by CFM56 engines, took off from Galeão Antonio Carlos Jobim International airport in Rio de Janeiro and performed a 45-minute flight before returning to its point of origin. The technical flight was approved by Airbus, the engine provider CFM International, and was authorized by aviation authorities in Europe (the European Aviation Safety Agency - EASA), and Brazil (National Civil Aviation Agency - ANAC).

“This experimental flight materializes TAM’s participation in a vast project to develop a production chain for renewable biofuel, with the purpose of creating a Brazilian platform for sustainable aviation bio-kerosene,” said Libano Barroso, president of TAM Airlines.

TAM Airlines and Airbus say that studies show the use of biofuels made from Jatropha could reduce the aviation sector’s overall carbon footprint by up to 80 percent, compared with conventional petroleum-based aviation kerosene. With such potential, both companies are supporting studies to assess the sustainability and economic viability of implementing the bio-kerosene in Brazil.

* According to the Department of Energy’s Transportation Energy Data Book, 2008