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Jatropha plant's oil studied as biofuel for jets

Jun 5, 2008 - Los Angeles Times

The easily grown weed produces oil that is about a third the cost of crude and doesn't have the environmental drawbacks of ethanol. Air New Zealand plans test flights this summer.

KUNIA, Hawaii -- If all goes well this summer, an Air New Zealand 747 jumbo jet will take off from Auckland this fall with one of its four engines powered by fuel refined from the seed of a fast-growing weed.

The three-hour test flight could mark one of the more promising -- and more unusual -- steps by the financially strapped airline industry to find cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuel.

"We're confident that the test will go well," said David Morgan, the carrier's general manager for airline operations, before leading visitors to a farm here where the weeds are being researched. If the flight is successful "it'll be a real milestone not only for Air New Zealand but for aviation."

The secret: oil from poisonous seeds of the jatropha tree, which grows in warm climates around the world. For the past year, a team of scientists here have been perfecting a process for turning the oil into jet fuel. On Wednesday, the airline announced plans to use these alternative biofuels for 10% of its needs by 2013.

The test flight is particularly noteworthy because it will come at a time when ethanol and other biofuels have come under increasing scrutiny because of their side effects. Production of ethanol has been blamed for corn shortages that have contributed to higher food prices. Others have been blamed for deforestation and contributing to global warming.

The test will also come as escalating fuel prices are prompting airlines to raise air fares and jam more people into fewer, more fuel-efficient planes. With jet fuel prices up 70% from a year ago, U.S. carriers could see losses of more than $7 billion this year, airline analysts estimate.

On Wednesday, United Airlines, the nation's second largest carrier, said it plans to ground 100 older, fuel-guzzling planes and shed up to 1,600 jobs as a way to cope with escalating jet fuel costs.

"This is an extraordinary crisis with the potential to reshape the industry with impacts throughout the global economy," said Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive of the International Air Transport Assn., as he opened an annual gathering of airline executives in Istanbul on Monday.

A partial solution may lie here on a hillside with a vista of Honolulu, where Air New Zealand and aircraft maker Boeing Co. have been working with Hawaiian agriculture experts to develop a strain of weed that could help the industry lessen its dependence on crude oil.