Airline Powers Test Flight With Pond Scum

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Desperate times call for desperate measures. Nowhere is this more the case than with today’s commercial aviation business, whose slow death has been accelerated of late by the twin nightmares of soaring fuel costs and global recession. The price of oil is way down from last year, but the financial breather will inevitably be short-lived as scarcity of fossil fuels grows in years to come.

What’s a desperate airline to do? Charging for alcoholic beverages and checked bags won’t cut it. (Don’t expect these costs to vanish any time soon.) Nope, the only solution lies in experimentation with new fuel sources. Take Virgin Atlantic. Last year, Richard Branson’s airline made news by powering a Boeing-747 with fuel partially derived from oils extracted from babassu nuts and coconuts.

In a piece I wrote for Mother Jones prior to the Virgin flight, I reported on widespread speculation that Branson might also choose to test algae as a biofuel. He never did so, of course, and now Continental Airlines has beaten him to the punch.

From the BBC:

The 90-minute flight by a Continental Boeing 737-800 went better than expected, a spokesperson said.

One of its engines was powered by a 50-50 blend of biofuel and normal aircraft fuel.

Wednesday’s test is the latest in a series of demonstration flights by the aviation industry, which hopes to be using biofuels within five years.

The flight was the first by a US carrier to use an alternative fuel source, and the first in the world to use a twin-engine commercial aircraft (rather than a four-engine plane) to test a biofuel blend.

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