Lufthansa to fly on biofuel

Soon a Lufthansa airbus will begin taking to the sky on a biofuel blend between Frankfurt and Hamburg, Germany. But will it fly economically?

Another biofuel-fired plane will hit the sky come spring. And this one will carry paying passengers. In April, Lufthansa plans to launch a pilot study to test how well one of its planes, an Airbus 321 (below), flies on biofuel.

Each day the airline, which is based in Germany, will have four flights powered partially by biofuel between Frankfurt and Hamburg, almost 250 miles. Just one of the plane's engines will run on a 50:50 biofuel and kerosene blend. According to Lufthansa, this will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 1,500 tons.

While many airlines have been looking into biofuels to cut their emissions and find more renewable sources for jet fuel, Lufthansa would be the first to power commercial flights with biofuel over the long term—or six months, which is how long the almost $8.7-million project will last. The German government will cover about $2.5 million.

In a Berlin press conference yesterday, Johann-Dietrich Wörner of the German Aerospace Center said:

Our “burnFAIR” project is designed to research the long-term alternatives to conventional aviation jet fuel. The object is to gather data on pollutants from biofuel in comparison with conventional kerosene over a longer period. The measured pollution pattern related to diverse stresses in flight and the composition of the exhaust gases will allow us not only to draw conclusions about the compatibility of biofuel but also about the maintenance needs of aircraft engines. Since, above all, we expect a significant reduction in soot particles.

The results should be interesting, but the airline will have to perform some operational maneuvers to carry out the study. Individual planes aren't typically scheduled for only one route, and this plane will only be able to get a biofuel refill in Hamburg.

The biofuel itself, called NExBTL and produced by Finnish company Neste Oil, must also be certified by the American Society for Testing and Materials, which the company expects to happen in March. The biomass will come from sustainably harvested vegetable waste that will not compete with food crops and not tear down the rainforest, according to Lufthansa. However, getting enough of it, the airline admits, is already proving challenging.

But the biggest hurdle may be cost. Over the fuel's life cycle, Neste Oil says NExBTL has 40 to 80 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than standard jet fuel. But its price has also been reported to be three to five times higher. (Lufthansa is adding 2,000 seats to some of its fleet through skinny backrests, but...I doubt that will cover it.) If it leads to a greener airline industry a price hike would be worth it, but how much extra would an average customer be willing to pay for a biofuel flight in order to achieve this? Will there at least be organic peanuts? Or perhaps just a little more on every ticket to allow the airline to fly some biofuel-powered planes elsewhere?

Airline Reporter discusses some other ways to cut emissions. After interviewing a Boeing spokesperson earlier this year about an initiative to develop jet biofuel in the U.S. Northwest, David Parker Brown reports:

He explained there are four ways to help airlines curb their carbon emissions. The first is product development, where Boeing creates new, more fuel efficient aircraft, like the Boeing 787 and the Boeing 747-8. The second is to retrofit currently flying aircraft with performance packages, winglets and other items. Third is to change the way airlines fly and operate aircraft in order to be more efficient. The last way is the type of fuel used to power the aircraft.

Lufthansa says it's been taking on similar strategies as well.

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