Some time ago, CD-Traveller, mentioned that a number of airlines were testing biofuels in the hope that they could replace traditional aviation fuel to power their flights. Now it has been announced that Lufthansa will be the first airline to use a blend of vegetable oil and kerosene in one of the engines of its twin-engine Airbus 321’s on scheduled passenger flights. From next April on the Hamburg-Frankfurt route only, information can be gathered on how this fuel will perform in a normal aviation role instead of the testing that has occurred so far. It will help to see what the effects of this mixture are on the engine over a long period. Will it require less or more maintenance for example? That it is in only one engine and contributes only half of the fuel for that engine suggests that growth in this area will be slow and carefully managed.

But is it really an alternative?

Lufthansa has been a strong proponent of alternatives to existing aviation fuel but it has come at a cost. This trial will be €6.6 million (say £5.4 million) and will save an estimated 1,500 tons of CO2 emissions or about 8 tons a day. Given that one plane will move maybe 700 passengers per day, you can see that the savings aren’t that great and they come at a considerable cost as, currently, biofuels cost 3 times as much as normal aviation fuel.

The other issue is the whole problem of biofuels. When, a few years ago, farmers started producing crops for biofuels instead of food, the impact on the poorer nations of this world was quickly apparent in food riots and price rises. That has made politicians and energy companies think carefully how to go forward. Lufthansa and the manufacturers of the biofuel, Finland’s Neste Oil are creating this from sustainable food stock resources which, they say, will not compete for food, water or land.
British Airways is developing a biofuel using algae which is fast growing and, similarly, does not compete with existing resources for food.

Both tests are eagerly anticipated in the hope that they may be viable commercially. It seems churlish to criticise these developments, but there have been energy crises going back 40 years at least, yet given developments in IT and the internet, for example, reliable alternatives to aviation fuel still seem a frustratingly long time in coming.