Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, September 29, 2006

New aircraft fuel could be pie in the sky

by George Monbiot

The Guardian - Comment is Free (September 25 2006)

So now we know: Richard Branson doesn't read the Guardian. On Thursday, it published an extract from my book showing that there are no foreseeable substitutes for aviation fuel (kerosene) that don't currently cause more harm than good. A few hours later, Branson announced that he would be investing GBP 1.6 billion in technologies intended to reduce climate change. First among them would be alternative fuels for aircraft.

He singled out biofuels as a promising opportunity. While pure biodiesel can be used to run a car engine, it cannot be used in jet planes at a higher concentration than roughly ten per cent. This is because its "cloud point" is much higher than kerosene's. At low temperatures, oils go cloudy, and at a couple of degrees beyond that point, they form a gel that would block the engine. As the plane rises through the troposphere, and the temperature cools, its engines would clog and stall. Even a ten per cent mixture is likely to be fatal, as it raises the cloud point from -51 degrees Celsius to -29 degrees Celsius.

This can be partly countered by repeatedly cooling the fuel and filtering out the ice crystals, but that requires a great deal of energy. Far worse, biofuels are currently causing far more climate change than they prevent. Rainforests are being cleared to plant palm oil and sugar cane. Other forms of agriculture are being driven onto virgin land as the global demand for grain rises. Rising grain prices, blamed by the UN food and agriculture organisation primarily on the demand for biofuels, already threaten the food security of the world's poor - and it is likely to get a lot worse.

Now it could be that Branson's money will help develop a new source of biofuel - algae grown in ponds in the desert for example, or waste products from crops and forestry. If so, that's something we should welcome, while remembering that it can't comprise more than ten per cent of his fleet's fuel. The problem is that we need to cut carbon emissions by 87% by 2030 in every sector - aviation included - and there's no conceivable way in which a change of fuel could do this, especially if the number of flights keeps growing.

The fleet which most urgently needs to be cut is Virgin Atlantic. It produces thirteen per cent more carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre than the industry average for long-haul flights, probably because of the high number of business-class passengers it carries, who take up more space.

So is Branson going to do something about it? You've got to be kidding. Virgin Atlantic's three-year growth plan is "aimed at capturing greater business market share, with products tailored towards premium passengers at the heart of the strategy. The airline is targeting an increase of at least ten per cent in the number of business travellers over the next year."

Branson's announcement was a marvellous publicity coup, as so many of his initiatives are. But is there anything behind it?

Bill Totten


Post a Comment

<< Home