Air New Zealand Takes Off With Jatropha Biofuel

Air New Zealand has completed what it says was the first commercial test flight using biofuel made from the jatropha plant. Jatropha, which produces seeds that contain inedible lipid oil, can be grown on land that’s not usable for food crops, making it a potentially more environmentally friendly feedstock for biofuel than other plants.

The airline worked on the test project with partners Boeing (s BA), Rolls-Royce and Honeywell International‘s (s HON) UOP unit, along with support from biofuel developer Terasol Energy. There were four pilots and two engineers on board for the 2-hour test flight today, which was conducted over the Hauraki Gulf area on the North Island, with a blend of half jatropha biofuel and half jet fuel used to power one of the four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines on an Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400.

Over the past year, Virgin Atlantic and Continental Airlines (s CAL) also announced biofuel test plans, but some environmental activists criticized the flight, pointing out that only a small amount of biofuel was actually being used. Virgin Atlantic’s test flight in February had only 5 percent biofuel in its tanks, with the biofuel made from coconut and babassu palm oil.

Next month, Continental is expected to test a jatropha and algae blend, with the jatropha coming from Terrasol and the algae from Sapphire Energy, one of a number of startups looking at turning algae into jet fuel.

For the Air New Zealand flight, Terasol Energy supplied the jatropha oil, with refining technology from UOP used to turn the oil into renewable jet fuel.

Air New Zealand Chief Pilot David Morgan said the biofuel performed well on the test flight through both the fuel system and engine. In a statement, he said, “To complete our testing program our engineers will over the next few days be thoroughly assessing the engine and fuel systems looking for any changes as a result of the use of biofuel.”