Hot on the heels of news that natural gas reserves have risen to 1.2 trillion barrels of oil equivalent–a 60 year supply–Qatar Airlines announced that it has completed the first passenger flight powered completely by natural gas.
Yesterday’s six-hour flight from London to Qatar on an Airbus 340-800 was fueled by Shell’s 50-50 blend of synthetic gas-to-liquids (GTL) kerosene and oil-based kerosene. But is this any better than traditionally powered flights?
The short answer: not really. Qatar Airlines’ flight burned with fewer lower sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions than conventional aircraft, but natural gas-powered flights emit more CO2 than petroleum-powered flights. It’s a short-term solution to the long-term problem of oil shortages, and it’s a good one at that–the country is building a GTL plant that will have an annual capacity of one million tons, or enough to take 250 passengers around the world 4,000 times. When the plant goes into production in 2012, Qatar will become the world’s biggest producer of GTL. So for Qatar, at least, GTL kerosene can act as a stepping stone to an alternative fuel with lower emissions. But it is not, as one recent article claims, part of our long-term energy future. That is, if we want an energy future without high CO2 emissions.