In the race to develop a viable aviation biofuel, Air New Zealand and Boeing are banking on the jatropha plant to deliver the cost-effective, green alternative they need.

The soaring cost of world oil, pushing up jetfuel costs around 70 per cent in the last year alone, and an increasing focus on the greenhouse gas emissions from air travel have the industry under intense pressure to find a cheaper, more environmentally-friendly alternative.

Air New Zealand and Boeing are planning a three-hour test flight in the next few months, running one of four jumbo-jet engines on fuel from jatropha oil produced at a research facility in Hawaii, the LA Times reports. The airline has announced a goal to supply 10 per cent of its aviation fuel needs from biofuels by 2013.

While Virgin has already flown a test flight using a bio-jetfuel blend in one of its engines, question marks were raised by environmentalists. Amid the rising concerns over the unsustainability of using food crops and food-bowl land to produce biofuels, jatropha has the advantage of being able to be grown on marginal land that won’t take other crops. The shrub grows relatively fast, suits warm climates, demands little water and the nut-fruit it produces is rich in oil.

Jatropha is already being successfully used as a feedstock for biodiesel production albeit on a small scale so far. Practical experience in the cultivation of the plant is limited given it has largely been regarded as a weed in the past with little commercial value.

Early estimates suggest that jatropha oil could be produced for as little as $43 a barrel, compared to more than $120 a barrel for crude oil currently, the LA Times report says. The downside is that, with no great history of cultivation, knowledge of the plant and development of most-productive varieties is really in its infancy compared to food crops.

There are also environmental concerns that the successful development of a blend of bio- and fossil-fuels for use of aviation will see increased fossil fuel use and greenhouse emissions as the industry continues to grow.

Related links:
Virgin runs first biofuel test flight
Air NZ plans biofuel test flight
Boeing backs algae biofuel R&D

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