NZ airline flies jetliner partly run on veg oil

A passenger jet powered in part by vegetable oil successfully completed a two-hour flight Tuesday to test a biofuel that could lower airplane emissions and cut costs, Air New Zealand said.

One engine of a Boeing 747-400 airplane was powered by a 50-50 blend of oil from jatropha plants and standard A1 jet fuel. This year has seen an unprecedented push for alternative fuels by airlines, which were slammed by skyrocketing oil prices earlier in 2008 and are now bracing for a falloff in air travel in the face of a global economic slowdown.

While Air New Zealand couldn't say whether the blend would be cheaper than standard jet fuel since jatropha is not yet produced on a commercial scale, the company expects the blend to be "cost competitive," according to company spokeswoman Tracy Mills.

Biofuels were once regarded as impractical for aviation because most freeze at the low temperatures encountered at cruising altitudes. But tests show jatropha, whose seeds yield an oil already used to produce fuels like biodiesel, has an even lower freezing point than jet fuel.

Air New Zealand Chief Executive Rob Fyfe called the flight "a milestone for the airline and commercial aviation." "Today we stand at the earliest stages of sustainable fuel development and an important moment in aviation history," he said shortly after the flight. The company's goal is to become the world's most environmentally sustainable airline. The flight was the first to use jatropha as part of a biofuel mix.

In February, Boeing and Virgin Atlantic carried out a similar test flight that included a biofuel mixture of palm and coconut oil — but was dismissed as a publicity stunt by environmentalists who said the fuel could not be produced in the quantities needed for commercial aviation use. Biofuels emit as much carbon as kerosene-based jet fuel, but jatropha — a Mexican plant that grows in warm climates — absorbs about half the carbon that jatropha-based fuels release.

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