Qantas flies with mustard seed biofuel

Australian airline Qantas flew for the first time with biofuel from Los Angeles to Melbourne. The blended biofuel saved 18,000 kilograms in carbon emissions on the historic 15-hour, trans-Pacific flight. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

Qantas wants to reduce the carbon emissions of its aircraft by adding mustard oil to its jet fuel. (Image credit: Barbara Barkhausen)

If you calculate your personal carbon emissions for a flight between Los Angeles and Melbourne on the website, you come up with 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. A simple enough route, but with a catastrophic carbon balance.

Australian airline Qantas is now working to reduce these emissions after it operated the world’s first biofuel trans-Pacific flight. The tank contained just 10 per cent mustard seed oil, but the airline expects that it saved the Dreamliner 787-9 a whopping 18 tonnes of carbon emissions during the 15-hour flight – or seven per cent less emissions on the route compared to normal operations.

Step towards sustainable aviation

In the long term, Qantas believes it can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent in comparison to standard petroleum based fuel, and it describes the historic flight as a “big step in the development of a renewable jet fuel industry”, and ultimately sustainable aviation.

The biofuel was produced from the plant Brassica Carinata, a non-food, industrial type of mustard seed that farmers can grow as a rotational or break-crop to improve soil quality and reduce erosion.

The mustard seed was developed by Canadian-based agricultural-technology company Agrisoma Biosciences, but Qantas plans to work with Australian farmers in the future to grow the country’s first commercial aviation biofuel seed crop by 2020.

Mustard plant grows well in Australia

Carinita requires no specialized production or processing techniques. It also happens to be water efficient. Field trials conducted by the University of Queensland in Gatton, Queensland and in Bordertown, South Australia show that the plant should do very well in the Australian climate.

According to Qantas, one hectare of Carinata seed yields 2,000 litres of oil, which produces 400 litres of biofuel or 1,400 litres of renewable diesel.

The Los-Angeles-Melbourne route wasn’t Qantas’ first flight with biofuel. Back in 2012, Qantas and its budget airline Jetstar operated Australia’s first biofuel trial flights. An A330 on the Sydney-Adelaide route and an A320 on the Melboure-Hobart route were both powered with biofuel derived from used cooking oil, which was split with 50:50 conventional jet fuel.

Lufthansa also testing biofuels

Other airlines are also experimenting with biofuels, including Alaska Airlines, Dutch airline KLM, and Qatar Airlines, which in October 2009 operated the world’s first commercial flight with a synthetic fuel.

Germany’s Lufthansa is also working with alternative fuels. For instance in 2011, it became the first airline in the world to test the use of biofuel in regular flight operations over a six-month period. Then in 2014, a Lufthansa aircraft flew from Frankfurt to Berlin Tegel using a ten per cent blend of the new biofuel component farnesan. And in 2016, the airline refuelled one of its aircraft at Oslo Airport with a fuel blend that contained 5 per cent biokerosene.

On its website, Lufthansa emphasizes that special attention should be paid to the issue of sustainability when it comes to alternative fuels: “Before we use plant-derived fuel, for example, we must make sure that cultivation of the energy plants in question never ends up in competition with food production.”

In the past, biodiesel for the automotive industry has come under heavy criticism when the palm oil used comes from Indonesia or Malaysia, where precious rainforests are falling victim to industrial plantations.

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