Biofuels take flight

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the fight to bring alternative fuels to our cars and trucks that we forget about another mainstream vehicle that is trapped by dependence on oil — planes.

Fuel is the second largest expense for airlines, and plays a huge role in driving up flights costs, hurting the consumer. Jet fuel is also responsible for 12 percent of CO2 emissions in the transport sector. What’s more, it contributes to air pollution in communities near airports — spewing ultrafine particle pollution that can damage our brains and other toxic emissions like NOx and black carbon that can cause a host of other health problems.

One of the major commercial airplane manufacturers, Boeing, is working to remedy this by promoting aviation biofuels that reduce CO2 emissions by 50 to 80 percent while simultaneously cutting other air pollutants. It’s not only a laudable environmental decision, but a smart business play by the manufacturing giant. Helping diversify the fuels used by Boeing’s planes will ensure that its customers (airlines) won’t be hamstrung the next time oil prices spike.

Boeing’s latest project went live earlier this summer, when Mango and South African Airways (SAA) conducted a test flight from Johannesburg to Capetown, South Africa. They used a 30 percent blend aviation biofuel produced from locally grown tobacco plants — and before you ask, yes, it was nicotine free. It was also grown on under-utilized land, and planning was undertaken to ensure the program would have no negative effects on food production and fresh-water sources.

Now, a 30 percent blend of aviation biofuel used to fuel one 784-mile flight may not seem like a big deal. And on its face, it isn’t. However, its success helps set the stage for future, more expansive projects. Case in point, this flight was the first of many in SAA’s quest to ensure half of its jet fleets will use biofuels by 2023. And Boeing’s project in South Africa is only one of many, with biofuels programs taking flight in the United States, Canada, China, Europe, Japan, Mexico, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia as well.

Hopefully the programs catch on so we can all reap the benefits of cleaner — and cheaper — flights that use biofuels.

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