China's aviation biofuel test a success

Oct. 31, 2011

Air China on Friday conducted its first trial flight of a passenger plane powered by a mix of biofuel and traditional aviation fuel.

The Boeing 747 landed safely at Beijing Capital International Airport at 9:30 a.m. after burning more than 10 tonnes of biofuel.

Analysts believe the successful trial shows that biofuel could become an alternative energy option for commercial passenger flights in the near future.

After the test, Zhang Hongying, an official with the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said that biofuel is now ready to be used for commercial flights.

Sun Li, general manager of the China National Aviation Fuel Group Corporation, a large state-owned supplier of aviation fuel, said the fuel used was a 50-50 mix.

Air China Vice President He Li said the composition and the burning efficiency of the fuel had been tested as well as its impact on the engines.

The biofuel used in the trial flight was produced from the seeds of tung trees.

Shen Diancheng, vice president of PetroChina Company Ltd., said it has taken PetroChina 10 years to overcome the technical barriers of converting the oil extracted from the seeds into fuel that could power airplanes.

He also said the trees that the seeds were harvested from were not planted on arable land, and, instead, were grown on mountain hills and wasteland.

Tung trees can be grown on a total of 800 million mu (58.3 million hectares) of barren mountain hills in China, and PetroChina had so far planted more than 1.2 million mu of the trees mainly in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan, and Jiangxi, he said.

The company is expected to supply 60,000 tonnes of aviation gas produced from tung oil annually by 2014, according to Shen.

Biofuel is the only available alternative energy for commercial aviation, as electric, solar and nuclear power are not suitable for this purpose, Sun Li said.

Sun said that the large-scale use of biofuel might save the country's aviation industry from the shortage of crude oil.

Meanwhile, reducing emissions is critical for China's burgeoning civil aviation industry, said Fu Pengcheng, professor with the New Energy Research Center of China's University of Petroleum.

China has pledged to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide produced per unit of GDP by 40 to 45 percent by the end of 2020.

As fuel is the chief source of emissions in the aviation industry, developing biofuel to replace traditional aviation fuel is a priority, Fu said.

The European Union (EU) has planned a "taxing scheme" that requires any airline landing or taking off inside the EU to take part in the bloc's emissions trading scheme starting from January 1, 2012.

China and Russia jointly railed against the scheme that demands global airlines buy carbon emissions permits, saying it infringes upon other countries' sovereignty and burdens global air carriers.

"In spite of this, China still has to be more active in developing alternative energy options for traditional aviation fuel, as well as implementing other emissions reduction measures in both management and infrastructure," said Fu.

Fu suggests that China could potentially make a breakthrough in transforming environmentally-friendly algae, which is high in oil content and grows quickly, as a component of the aviation biofuel.