One of Air New Zealand’s fleet is set to be powered by a biofuel derived from nuts before this Christmas.
The company said it expects to operate the world’s first test flight on a large passenger aircraft using fuel sourced from a plant called jatropha in the last quarter of this year.
The carrier’s decision to reduce dependency on fossil fuels came as its fuel bill jumped by $300 million last year against a backdrop of surging oil prices. However, it managed to achieve a near break-even annual net profit of $218 million.
Jet fuel prices have recently hit USD 174 a barrel. As the cost of a biofuel is estimated to be around 30 per cent less, an increasing number of international carriers are looking at ways of converting to biofuels.
The Kiwi carrier is targeting to replace at least ten per cent of its total annual fuel needs, one million barrels, with environmentally sustainable fuel within the next five years.
Part of the plan is using the biofuel produced from jatropha, a nut that grows in tropical and semi-arid areas. The company said the fuel is being refined in the US and once approved by engine manufacturer Rolls Royce, it would set a date for the test flight, subject to regulatory approvals from the Civil Aviation Authority.
The test flight will take place in Auckland, powering one of Air New Zealand’s Boeing 747-400 jets with a mix of jatropha and conventional jet fuel.
Jatropha grows up to three metres high and produces seeds containing inedible lipid oil that is used to produce fuel. Each seed produces between 30 and 40 per cent of its mass in oil.
Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyfe said the jatropha oil has satisfied non-negotiable criteria any biofuel must meet for its test flight program, which are social, technical and commercial.
“Firstly, it must be environmentally sustainable and not compete with existing food stocks. Secondly, the fuel must be at least as good as the product we use today. Finally, it should be significantly cheaper than existing fuel supplies and be readily available,” he said.
“Jatropha satisfies all our criteria and furthermore it is likely to be available in the necessary commercial quantities to meet our needs within five years.”