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Virgin flight into bold biofuel territory

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February 26, 2008

Virgin Atlantic biofuel test flight

Virgin Atlantic biofuel test flight

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February 27, 2008 Dubbed a “scam” and a “stunt” by environmental groups and sections of the media, the fact remains that Virgin Atlantic has become the world's first airline to fly one of its commercial planes on biofuel. A mix of standard jet fuel, coconut and babassu oils powered the Boeing 747 jumbo jet from London Heathrow to Amsterdam.

Coconut and babassu oils were chosen as they are deemed environmentally and socially sustainable and can be found in everyday cosmetic products, such as lip balm and shaving cream. Furthering their green credentials, neither crop competes with staple food sources and the oils were harvested from existing, mature plantations. No modifications were made to the engine to accommodate the biofuel however extensive laboratory and static-engine testing on the ground was conducted to evaluate the energy and performance properties of the biofuel to be used in the flight. Part of the reason the flight has come under attack from green groups, aside from the controversy surrounding biofuels, is that three of the 747's tanks were filled with jet fuel and just 20% of the fourth tank contained the coconut and babassu palm oil mixture.

The demonstration flight was piloted by Captain Geoff Andreasen, Virgin Atlantic's Chief Boeing pilot and during the technical advisors were on board to take readings and recording flight data for later analysis. Virgin Atlantic has pledged to share the results of its analysis with those also seeking to cut their carbon emissions in the rest of the industry. Virgin’s President, Sir Richard Branson, commented that the flight “marks a biofuel breakthrough for the whole airline industry. Virgin Atlantic, and its partners, is proving that you can find an alternative to traditional jet fuel and fly a plane on new technology, such as sustainable biofuel.”

As a major contributor to greenhouse gas emission, the aviation industry is investing in new clean and green ways to power its aircraft. Early this year the Airbus A380 became the first commercial aircraft to complete a flight using liquid fuel processed from gas. And late last year, an L-29 military aircraft powered solely by 100% biodiesel fuel successfully completed a test flight in the skies above Reno, Nevada. Boeing has also stepped up its research into bio-jet fuel and plans to make another test flight, this time with Air New Zealand, in the second half of this year.

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