Oh those marketing types…

The San Francisco Chronicle reports:

A Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 will make a historic flight later this month from London’s Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam.

Although no passengers will be on board, the contents of the plane’s fuel tanks will have everyone in the airline industry watching.

The trip will be the first time a commercial aircraft has flown on biofuel.

When I first read the article title, I saw biodiesel instead of biofuel and wondered if the aircraft would sound like a tractor with some loose tools left under the hood.

The founder of Virgin, Richard Branson, ratchets up the rhetoric:

The demonstration flight will give us crucial knowledge that we can use to dramatically reduce our carbon footprint.

Read the article past the first few paragraphs to learn the fuel being used is a mixture of 80% conventional jet fuel and 20% biofuel. This will yield little if any reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions, though the biofuel component could be partially carbon-neutral. It depends on what it is and how much energy is required to process it. I therefore find it difficult to take seriously Barnson’s claim of a drastic carbon footprint reduction. This is doubly true because Virgin hasn’t revealed what the biofuel component actually is. They do say it does not compete with food and freshwater resources, but marketing departments say a lot of things.

It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out and what they actually do with the information. No matter how well it goes, it’ll be a long time before any real changes occur in the commercial airline industry. As the article says, the US government certifies aircraft engines by the fuel they use. Change fuel, and the engine is illegal pending certification with the new fuel. A switch could be costly and slow. I’m conveniently ignoring the politics involved when large corporate self-interests are involved. This political aspect could make the technical and certification issues seem simple in comparison.

My expectation is the flight will be a success and we’ll hear little more about it for quite some time. You’ve got to hand it to him though, Branson can put on a show. If something good comes of it, all the better.

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