A blog written for the Guardian’s Environment website about Virgin’s biofuel test flight…

I doubt many of us had probably heard of babassu oil before a Virgin airline test flight, partly powered by biofuels, made the short hop from London to Amsterdam yesterday.

The oil, which is produced from a palm native to the Maranhão Babaçu forests in the eastern Amazon, is typically used as a cooking oil, but is also used to make medicines and soap.

Well, if test partners Virgin, Boeing and General Electric get their way, this versatile oil will be able to add another string to its bow: propelling humans around the globe at 900km an hour.
Along with coconut oil, babassu oil was blended – 20/80 – with traditional aviation-grade kerosene and fed into just one of the Virgin test plane’s engines. The other engines were powered normally and we can assume the test went well because there were no big splashes reported in the North Sea.

If this test flight had taken place about five years ago, I’m sure it would have received near universal praise. Back then, biofuels were being touted as the great “green” alternative to fossil fuels. But in recent years, the more we have examined biofuels, the more problems have appeared – particularly in relation to their claim to being “carbon neutral”.

Branson, a master of PR, doesn’t seem to have timed this latest high-profile stunt very well. Just last week, the UK government was putting the brakes on biofuels by ordering a review of their environmental and economic damage. In recent weeks, Science has published several damning papers about the effectiveness of using biofuels to reduce emissions. And just hours after the test flight landed safely, the Financial Times was reporting that the UN’s World Food Programme is considering rationing food aid to the world’s most needy because of spiralling food costs which are, in no small part, being driven up by the demand for biofuels – which, at present, are largely made from food crops.

Feeding a starving child, or powering a flight to New York? It should never be a contest, but, following Virgin’s test flight, it now is. The very thing that the critics of biofuels feared is now becoming a reality. (I wonder if the crew of Virgin Galactic‘s sub-orbital spacecraft will be pointing out the biofuel plantations below to space tourists when the first flights take off in the next couple of years?)

One of the reasons environmentalists and others are crying foul over this test flight is because Virgin originally stated that it wouldn’t be using a “first-generation feedstock” (most of which are produced from food crops such as corn and palm oil) to produce its biofuel. In the build-up to the test flight, Virgin had been suggesting that the feedstock would be derived from algae instead. But as many biofuel producers know all too well, it’s much cheaper and more convenient to produce biofuels from food crops.

Rather than wait until an algae-derived biofuel was ready – which would probably be something to herald – Virgin felt the need to jump the gun so it could still claim to be the first airline in the world to trial a biofuel. As a result, it will now justly get the flack for using a feedstock that should be feeding people instead.

The hunt will go on, though, for a “drop-in” replacement for kerosene – one that doesn’t require a huge and costly change in refuelling infrastructure. If the aviation industry is to keep growing at its current pace, and yet still manage to reduce its emissions burden, it is clearly going to need to keep trialling new fuels. And the key hurdle is finding one that can meet kerosene’s “high energy density” – in other words, its oomph. A hard task, indeed.

But even if someone did manage to produce, say, an algae-derived aviation fuel, we are still a long way from it ever being used to power commercial flights for the simple reason that the aviation industry, by necessity, is a highly risk-averse industry. No one wants to risk the lives of 300 people travelling at 30,000ft. Therefore, it would take at least a decade before any such fuel was passed as safe by regulators. It’s for this reason that most industry commentators see kerosene remaining the dominant aviation fuel for at least the next two to three decades – a period for which a continued fast growth in aviation emissions is predicted. So will its arrival be too little, too late?

Personally, I welcome research into new aviation fuels, but worry greatly that the current focus means that we’ll end up with an alternative fuel that ultimately presents more problems than solutions. The one solution that just doesn’t seem to be able to fly at present is simply reducing the number of planes we send up into the atmosphere. But that would require a political fuel no one has yet seen the likes of.