The road to biofuel-powered airplanes is apparently a very short runway. Virgin Atlantic launched the first biofuel-powered test flight in 2008. Now Lufthansa is set to become the first airline to use biofuels on commercial flights, as early as next year.
Lufthansa's recently unveiled burnFAIR biofuel project is backed by the German government, which is ponying up $3.3 million for the $8.7 million initiative. In April 2011, Lufthansa plans to start a six-month biofuel-powered trial using an Airbus A321 on commercial flights on the Hamburg-Frankfurt-Hamburg route. The airline hopes to gauge the effect of biofuels—in this case a 50-50 mix of biofuel and traditional kerosene—on engine maintenance and lifespan.
The airline's biosynthetic kerosene, which is created in a biomass-to-liquid (BTL) process, will be produced by Neste Oil. Lufthansa hasn't revealed the source of its biomass, but the airline claims: "We ensure it originates from a sustainable supply and production process. Our licensed suppliers must provide proof of the sustainability of their processes."
There's still plenty of work to be done before next April. Lufthansa explains:
Aside from the actual research project, the acquisition of biofuel in sufficient volume and the complex logistics it involves is proving a challenge in the run-up to the trial. The aircraft, for example, will be fuelled only in Hamburg. Furthermore, an array of internal processes must be modified, since Lufthansa does not normally deploy a plane exclusively on a single route, but always in a rotation chain on flights to different destinations.
It will be difficult, in other words, for Lufthansa to expand its trial to more flights. And it will be a while until this airline—or any other airline—uses a biofuel mix for all of its trips. But judging by the speed with which airlines have gone from internal biofuel testing to commercial flights, we will be taking off shortly.