Thursday, January 24, 2008

High-Flying Algae

Previously outspoken global warming skeptic Richard Branson has seen the light. Branson, like many of the converted, has made fighting global warming a personal crusade and the billionaire founder of Virgin Airways is making a bid to power his jet fleet with biofuel.

As reported in Mother Jones, Virgin Airlines: Powered by Pond Scum, speculation abounds on what form of biofuel Branson will be using on the test run of a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam on a blend of 20 percent biofuel and 80 percent jet fuel. The test is scheduled for late February 2008.

Neither Virgin nor its partners, Boeing and GE, will say what biofuel the airline plans to use. Scott attributed the silence to "customer preference," indicating that more information could be released in the coming weeks. For now, he would say only that Boeing is investigating more than 20 different "feedstocks" for the production of biofuels, including a flowering plant called jatropha, canola, and the Brazilian babassu nut—all of which yield oils when crushed.

Another potential fuel source, one that Scott alluded to several times, is algae. "The biggest thing you get out of going to biofuels is the ability to reduce CO2 as the plants are growing," he explained. And along those lines, perhaps more than any other feedstock, algae represents a kind of holy grail to biofuel researchers. It's a fast-growing, hardy, single-celled organism that takes in carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide and releases oxygen, producing oil, sugar, and protein in the process. It's biodegradable, can grow in harsh weather, and holds an estimated thirty times more energy per acre than land-based feedstocks. The Energy Department estimated it would require 15,000 acres (an area about the size of Maryland) to grow enough algae to replace all of America's petroleum needs; it would require half the continental United States to accomplish the same with soy.

Algae is gaining increasing attention as a fuel source, so it will be illuminating to see if this is the fuel Branson is banking on. As a master of self promotion, Branson will undoubtedly have a moment in the spotlight to unveil his test results and focus the aviation industry on the possibilities of alternative fuels.