Air China and Boeing make plans for the first trans-Pacific sustainable biofuel-powered flight
(photo: Air China)
Mon 31 Jan 2011 – Air China and Boeing have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the intention of carrying out a trans-Pacific biofuel flight between China and the US, and will follow China’s first biofuel demonstration flight planned for the second half of this year. The sustainably-sourced biofuel for the trans-Pacific flight will be produced both in the US and China to test and compare the respective qualities and capabilities of the fuels. In addition to Boeing, Air China will collaborate on the project with PetroChina, Honeywell’s UOP, Pratt & Whitney and other partners. Meanwhile, in another aviation biofuel project involving Boeing and UOP, the Abu Dhabi based Masdar Institute has announced the completion of a one-year study into the viability of salt water tolerant plants irrigated with seawater as a sustainable feedstock for aviation biofuels.
The Chinese venture was initiated following the signing of a series of Sino-US cooperation agreements in May 2010 (see article), which included the joint development of a sustainable aviation biofuel industry in China based on jatropha that is grown widely in the south of the country.
The demonstration flight will help verify the feasibility, supply capacity and commercial potential of Chinese-produced biofuel that meets ASTM fuel standards, and aims to build a platform for an industrial supply chain in the country, says Air China. The Department of Airworthiness Certification at the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) will track the fuel production process and carry out inspections before issuing approval for the biofuels to be used on the demonstration flight. Based on its experience, CAAC will begin the process of establishing national standards in aviation biofuel production.
The demonstration flight is likely to be carried out on an Air China Boeing 747-400 with one of its four Pratt & Whitney engines powered by a 50-50 blend of biofuel and Jet A-1 conventional kerosene.
The airline says the intention for the trans-Pacific flight is for all engines – an industry first for a biofuel flight – to be powered by a 50-50 blend, although it is uncertain whether the aircraft to be used will be a four-engined 747-400 or a new twin-engined 777-300ER currently on order from Boeing. An Air China representative told GreenAir Online that a proposed date for the flight is dependent on acquiring at least 100 tonnes of fuel for the 10-hour flight.
Air China, the world’s 10th largest airline in terms of aircraft fleet size, says the collaboration “indicates a cleaner future for the aviation industry” and delivers on its commitment to energy conservation, emissions reduction, environment protection and helping to lead the development of an alternative energy industry.
Researchers on the Masdar Institute study, called the Sustainability Assessment of the Integrated Seawater Agriculture System (ISAS), claim it confirms the potential of saltwater halophytes to yield high value fuels and resources, including aviation fuel, without competing for freshwater resources and arable land used by conventional agriculture. The study focused on the life-cycle impacts of biofuel production and also identified key research needs that can be addressed in order to increase the likelihood of success at large-scale commercial deployment. Agronomic research is still currently in progress on the halophyte Salicornia bigelovii.
The findings are expected to provide input for the future development of the Sustainability Bioenergy Research Center (SBRC), founded by Masdar Institute, Boeing, UOP and Etihad Airways. The flagship programme under the SBRC will be a five-year research and demonstration project designed to drive the commercial viability of halophyte-derived bioenergy, including renewable jet fuels. The programme will use integrated seawater agricultural systems to support the development and commercialisation of biofuel sources for aviation and other co-products.
ISAS co-leader Dr Sgouris Sgouridis, Assistant Professor, Engineering Systems and Management at the Masdar Institute, said: “Masdar Institute’s unique placement as a centre for innovation on renewable energy in general, located near the deserts of Abu Dhabi, with a continuously expanding researcher pool makes it an ideal location for the exploration of arid land biofuel production. We are confident that as research progresses in the next five years we will provide answers and demonstrate whether the dream is feasible and eventually nurture its commercial spin-offs.”
Billy Glover, Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ Vice President of Environment and Aviation Policy, said: “No initiative is doing more to stimulate action to help develop and commercialise sustainable forms of energy for aviation within the Gulf region. Aviation connects the people, goods and services of this region to the world.”
Etihad Airways CEO James Hogan added: “We see the use of sustainable biofuels as a major positive step change for our industry and we are proud to be involved with the Masdar Institute, Boeing and Honeywell’s UOP on a project that makes use of the resources of this region and supports the sustainability strategies of Abu Dhabi, including key research and development.”