Japan Airlines today flew a Boeing 747-300 with one engine burning a blend of biofuel and regular Jet A. The 90-minute flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo relied primarily on a new form of jet biofuel derived from camelina, a weedy flower native to Europe, that can be alternated with wheat crops.

Chief pilot Keiji Kobayashi said in a postflight statement that there was no difference in performance between the engines running on regular jet fuel and the one burning the blend.

A consortium of airlines, aircraft manufacturers and engine makers has now tested four different biofuel feedstocks in an effort to assess whether biofuels could play a role in reducing dependence on petroleum-based jet fuel, both to combat climate change and lower fuel costs. 

"We're going to assess the data collected in flight," Boeing spokesperson Jim Proulx says, "and also be doing engine system teardowns to examine and make sure everything looks like it is supposed to look after a normal flight."

One issue might be wear and tear on the various gaskets and seals in an engine; biofuels can have different interactions than petroleum-based jet fuel. But no such issues have been identified to date.

The blend (84 percent oil from camelina, nearly 16 percent from jatropha, a poisonous shrub from Central America, and the rest from algae) used on this flight was refined by UOP, a division of Honeywell,  which can now transform almost any plant-derived oil into fuel that emits less smoke and can deliver more power to the engines than petroleum-derived jet fuel.

The next step will be certifying jets to fly on the stuff. The American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) has already certified a synthetic fuel made from coal by South Africa's SASOL and the biofuel used in this flight—synthetic paraffinic kerosene—has the same chemistry. "Once ASTM sets and confirms standards, then the [Federal Aviation Administration] approves," Proulx says. But "we don't have a timeline on that."

Credit: Courtesy of JAL