One giant leap for biofuels

In a slow news week, this should’ve gotten bigger play.

Fuel from the weed jatropha powered an Air New Zealand jet on a two-hour flight today–the world’s second flight of a commercial jet on biofuel. One out of the four Rolls Royce engines on an Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 burned a 50-50 blend of regular jet fuel and a bio-version made from jatropha.

The flight more than doubled the air time of the first biofuel flight–a 40 minute jaunt between London and Amsterdam in February. The plane climbed to an altitude of 35,000 feet and the engine performed normally, according to chief pilot Capt. David Morgan.

Details are in Scientific American.

Of course there remains a big problem:

Biofuels don’t contain the oil necessary to help seals and rings in engines swell. So the lief of an aircraft engine would be reduced. That’s a big deal. The GE engine on a 777 could go for as high as $10 million apiece.

This issue is playing out in all forms of aviation, including general aviation. I have this thing sitting in a hangar — a new airplane engine.

It runs on fully leaded gasoline, which is being phased out. It may be a huge paperweight in a short period of time. These engines can run on auto fuel, but Minnesota’s ethanol content will rot the seals and reduce its life.

Researchers are trying to solve problems like this but so far there doesn’t appear to be a solution. Most of the small airplanes you see in the air are flying on borrowed time.