Chinese aircraft flies on plant oil

China jumps into aviation biofuels with a demonstration flight that used plant oil to fly.

An Air China Boeing 747 passenger jet powered by plant oil took to the skies recently in an hour-long flight around Beijing, a test that could mark the beginning of more widespread use of biofuels by the Chinese aviation industry.

The plane was powered (in part) by a biofuel produced from jatropha, a hardy-drought resistant shrub that grows oil-heavy seeds (see photo). The plant has been championed in recent years as the perfect biofuel source because it grows on marginal lands and isn't edible.  Despite all the cheerleading, jatropha has its shortcomings. It's expensive. And it requires a lot of water to produce the a bumper crop.

Fueling airplanes with jatropha-derived plant oil isn't new. Several European carriers including KLM Royal Dutch Airlines use biofuels on a regular basis. Still, China dipping its toe into aviation biofuels is noteworthy. If the government adopts an aviation biofuels plan, the market impact would be sizeable. Chinese aviation regulators are part of a global constituency that coordinates 15,000 commercial flights a day and is one of the fastest growing markets, reported the Wall Street Journal's China Real Time Report.

Some project stats:

  • The jatropha plants were grown in the mountains of China's Yunnan province;
  • The flight used a 50 percent blend of petroleum-based fuel and "green jet fuel" made from the jatropha seed in one of the four engines;
  • Honeywell International and PetroChina jointly produced the "green jet fuel" used on the flight.
  • The aircraft was powered by Pratt & Whitney PW4000 94-inch engines. There were no modfications to the aircraft or engines, which means the plant oil is a "drop-in" fuel.

[via WSJ's China Real Time Report]

Photo: Flickr user tonrulkens, CC 2.0


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