The future of air travel?

This week the aviation industry has seen two separate aircraft test different fuel that may be more environmentally sympathetic.

In Holland, a modified commercial aircraft running in part on biofuel completed an hour-long flight in what could be a pivotal moment for ‘greener’ travel.

The Boeing 747 is operated by Dutch airline KLM, which is dubbing the flight as a world first. Though at the moment it is only one of four engines running on the 50 per cent biofuel, 50 per cent normal kerosene mix, a marker for the future of air travel worldwide has been laid down.


Biofuel is oil derived from specific grown plants and was engineered in response to unstable oil costs from the traditional world marketplace.

The biofuel mix used by the Dutch flight is derived from a combination of blue-green algae, jatropha and camelina – fast-growing biomass sources that are increasingly being viewed as future-proof energy resources in line with the International Air Transport Association’s stated goal to use 10 per cent of alternative fuels by 2017.

The process is reliant on deriving the necessary compounds from high-yield non-food crops and it is controversial technology in that it requires huge swathes of land or water to deliver enough fuel. The environmental impact of this is as yet unknown but there are fears it may lead to deforestation and soil erosion plus impact negatively on water resources.

The KLM flight was powered on sustainable biokerosene from a Seattle-based company. It is said to reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent in comparison to conventional kerosene. The airline industry is in the firing line as a significant player in the carbon saga, although the percentage of emissions contributed thereto is four per cent.

British Airways, which flies to Grand Cayman, is teaming up with iconic engine manufacturer Rolls Royce to conduct trials on a number of biofuel products, starting in January 2010. They are planning ground tests that are hoped to speed up possible certification of various fuels for future commercial use.


Meanwhile in Zurich the Solar Impulse project, an aircraft designed to run on solar power, had its first test flight. Various unmanned aircraft have utilised the sun’s power for a number of years, but the increased weight payload of putting a passenger in the air can prove energy and cost prohibitive. Past aircraft have used solar power to charge up batteries prior to flight but the Solar Impulse aircraft derives enough energy directly from the panels themselves to allow it to take off, although it does have batteries in order to store energy for night flights too.

The single-person, ultra-lightweight carbon fibre solar aircraft started short-hop testing on 3 December when it flew for 350 metres, one metre off the ground. When the Wright Brothers first tested Kitty Hawk in December, 1903, their longest flight was 260 meters in 59 seconds.


Adventurer and co-founder of the company Bernard Piccard wrote in his blog of his excitement at the achievement.

‘We’ve done it – it actually took off! With its immense wingspan and low speed, it seemed to just hang in the air without moving for 30 seconds. But that was enough for it to fly 350 metres. The whole team held its breath while test pilot Markus Scherdel stabilised the Solar Impulse with a few tweaks of the ailerons before touching down smoothly.’

This initial, albeit modest, flight is a precursor to a battery of further test flights intended to culminate in a transatlantic flight in 2012, but it will not win any speed contests – to conserve energy, top speed is a very sedate 28 miles per hour. That is positively tardy in comparison with the 600mph Boeing 737 series, which are utilised by many operators including Cayman Airways.