Japan Airlines passenger jet tests biofuel

By Ryan C. Christiansen | January 15, 2009
Web exclusive posted Feb. 4, 2009, at 9:47 a.m. CST

During a demonstration flight Jan. 30, Japan Airlines tested using a mixture of biofuel and traditional kerosene-based Jet-A jet fuel in a Boeing 747-300 aircraft.

Biofuel made from a 50-percent mixture of camelina, jatropha and algae oils was combined with 50-percent Jet-A fuel to power one of the plane's four Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines during a roundtrip 90-minute flight from Haneda Airport, Tokyo. During the flight, tests were conducted on the engine's performance during normal and nonstandard flight operations, which included quick accelerations and decelerations, as well as engine shutdown and restart.

"Everything went smoothly," said Captain Keiji Kobayashi, the pilot. "There was no difference at all in the performance of the engine powered by the biofuel blend and the other three engines containing regular jet fuel."

The plane did not carry any passengers or payload. No modifications were made to the aircraft or engine to accommodate the fuel mix. Data from the flight will be analyzed by Japan Airlines, Boeing, and Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Corp. company.

The day before the test flight, ground crews tested the biofuel mixture to ensure that the tested No. 3 engine functioned normally. The biofuel portion of the mixture was 84 percent camelina, 16 percent jatropha, and less than one percent algae.

The camelina for the biofuel was provided by Sustainable Oils Inc., which is a joint venture between Seattle-based agricultural bioscience company Targeted Growth Inc. and Houston-based biofuel producer Green Earth Fuels LLC.

The jatropha oil was supplied by India-based Terasol Energy and the algae oil was provided by San Diego-based Sapphire Energy.

The biofuel was supplied by Nikki-Universal Co. Ltd., a joint venture between Des Plaines, Ill.-based UOP LLC, a Honeywell International Inc. company, and also JGC Corp. of Japan. The biofuel was produced using a proprietary hydro-processing technology. Lab tests by Boeing, UOP, and several independent laboratories verified the biofuel satisfied the industry's criteria for jet fuel performance.

"When biofuels are produced in sufficient amounts to make them commercially viable, we hope to be one of the first airlines in the world to start powering our aircraft using them," said Haruka Nishimatsu, president and chief executive officer for Japan Airlines.

Nicole Piasecki, president of Boeing Japan, said the company is hopeful that within three to five years, commercial aircraft will begin using biofuel during passenger flights. "There are remaining hurdles to overcome," she said, "including gaining the support of regulators, airports, fuel distributors and others, as well as increasing the production of environmentally and socially responsible fuel sources."

Tom Todaro, chief executive officer of Sustainable Oils, said while there currently are only a few thousand acres of camelina being managed, the company expects that number to grow to hundreds of thousands of acres within three years. "Within five years, projections are for between 100 million and 200 million gallons of camelina-based sustainable jet fuel," he predicted.
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