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Financial Times: Airbus stages test flight on synthetic fuel

By Kevin Done, Aerospace Correspondent
Published: February 2 2008 01:16 | Last updated: February 2 2008 01:16

Airbus staged the first test flight by a commercial aircraft using a synthetic liquid fuel processed from natural gas on Friday as airlines, aircraft makers and oil companies step up efforts to develop alternative fuels to jet kerosene.

The three-hour flight by an A380 superjumbo from Bristol to Toulouse was the first step in a test programme planned by Airbus and its partners, which include jet engine makers and energy groups, to assess the environmental impact of alternative fuels.

This month, Virgin Atlantic, the long-haul airline controlled by Sir Richard Branson, plans to fly a Boeing 747 on a test flight between London and Amsterdam, the first time a commercial aircraft has run on biofuel in-flight.

A similar flight is planned this year by Boeing and Air New Zealand, as the aerospace and energy industries seek sources of sustainable fuel to supplement or even replace jet kerosene.

Virgin Atlantic said its flight would use a “truly sustainable type of biofuel” that did not compete with food and fresh water resources, as it sought to allay a frequently voiced concern of environmental groups. The test will be made as part of joint research efforts with Boeing and GE Aviation, the jet engine maker.

During the A380 test flight, one of the four engines was fed with a blend of the synthetic liquid fuel derived from gas and known as gas to liquid and jet kerosene, while the other three engines were fed with standard jet fuel.

While GTL offers only small benefits in terms of carbon dioxide emissions, it is suphur-free and offers significant gains in terms of local air quality.

Airbus, which is working with Shell and Rolls-Royce on the test programme, said that the experiments with the synthetic gas fuel would support the development of future biofuels, which were not yet available in sufficient commercial quantities.

Shell is developing with Qatar Petroleum the large-scale Pearl GTL plant in Qatar, and Qatar Airways is expected to become one of the first airlines in the world to use the synthetic gas fuel on commercial flights, possibly as early as 2011.

GTL is being developed as a practical and viable so-called “drop-in” alternative fuel to jet kerosene that can be used without any expensive changes to present fuelling equipment and fuel storage.

Sebastien Remy, Airbus’s head of alternative fuels research, said that GTL should be available in “significant quantities” in the next few years. It was hoped to gain regulatory approval by 2009 to use a 50/50 blended fuel of GTL and kerosene and approval for 100 per cent GTL aviation fuel by 2013.

The development of biofuels was a much longer-term project, but Mr Remy said the industry believed that viable, sustainable biomass feedstocks could be developed by around 2015 with approval for use in small quantities possibly by 2020.

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