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Canadian airlines flying green

Diane Slawych.

By Diane Slawych, Special to QMI Agency

(Postmedia Network file photo)

(Postmedia Network file photo)

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Rarely a week goes by when I don't get an e-mail from one of the airlines about their latest foray into biofuels. One of the most recent came from Quantas when it announced Australia's first commercial fights powered by sustainable fuel (cooking oil and conventional jet fuel) on a Sydney-Adelaide return service this spring.

The environment is one reason for the increased interest in biofuels. Air travel is a major contributor to global warming. And at least two Canadian airlines are among those testing alternative fuels.

-- Just last month Air Canada conducted its "greenest" (environmentally friendly) flight ever when flight AC991 made the journey from Toronto to Mexico City using a 50/50 mix of regular fuel and biofuel derived from recycled cooking oil. Combined with other fuel-saving measures, the flight (on an Airbus A319 aircraft) officials say, generated at least 40% fewer emissions. The flight was supported by Airbus and is part of an environmental demonstration by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to coincide with last month's Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development.

-- But it was a regional airline, Toronto-based Porter that can claim to have conducted the first biofuel-powered revenue flight in Canada. Two months earlier (April 17) the airline flew one of its Bombardier Q400 turboprops from its base at Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport to Ottawa using a 50/50 blend of biofuel and Jet A1 fuel in one of its engines. Porter called it a "successful conclusion" to a test program that was launched in 2010.

Though commendable, what Canadian airlines are doing is small potatoes compared to what other airlines have achieved.

Lufthansa, for example, was the first airline to use biofuel in scheduled daily flight operations. Its Airbus A321 flew the Hamburg-Frankfurt-Hamburg route four times daily with one of its engines running on a 50/50 mix of regular fuel and biosynthetic kerosene in a six-month trial that ended in December 2011.

Joachim Buse, the Lufthansa's VP of Aviation Biofuels, says the results of the 1,187 biofuel flights between the two cities was positive with CO2 emissions reduced by 1,471 tonnes, according to initial calculations.

One month later, Lufthansa conducted its first scheduled transatlantic flight to the United States with a biosynthetic fuel mix, when a Boeing 747-400 flew from Frankfurt to Washington. This flight alone, Lufthansa estimates, reduced CO2 emissions by 38 tonnes, equivalent to the CO2 emissions of six scheduled flights between Frankfurt and Berlin.

But the environment is not the sole reason airlines are experimenting with alternative fuels.

"Europe is starting to regulate emissions with a fee and that's motivating airlines to consider biofuels as a way to pay less of a carbon tax," explained Murray Thomson, a mechanical engineering professor at University of Toronto, and a member of Alfa-Bird (Alternative Fuels and Biofuels for Aircraft Development).

The path ahead is not an easy one.

"Making jet fuel that is environmentally sustainable and cost effective is a big challenge," Thomson says. "Vegetable oil (canola, soy) is very expensive compared to jet fuel, and recycled oil is wonderful but that's just a tiny amount of what's used in the world so you can't go far with that."

Add to that, the fact the planet has a finite amount of agricultural land and water required to irrigate it. At least one expert believes the current path will create more harm than good.

"If we, and nations like ours, start developing large areas of land to growing fuel rather than food, world food prices could start to rise, pushing malnourished people further towards starvation," author George Monbiot writes in his book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning.

Lufthansa's Joachim Buse says the idea is not to develop biofuels at the expense of food production.

"We wouldn't want to negatively affect the well being of people in Africa and Asia, or see the rainforest knocked down."

At the same time he notes a German government study which found that 30% of human food produced in the country (in Germany) goes to waste at various stages whether in the manufacturing process, at the supermarket, or by consumers simply throwing it away.

Still, for biofuel to be viable, at least financially, production on an industrial scale would be needed, along with coordination and cooperation of farmers, refineries (which would process the crops), and distribution networks. Whether that will come to pass is still, can we say, up in the air.

writer@interlog.com

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