Flying on waste cooking oil

By | Category: Travel rumblings

A little while go Thomson flew one engine on one flight on one plane on a mixture of Jet A1 fuel and waste cooking oil as opposed to normal aviation fuel. It was a test to see the effect but you would have thought from the reactions that they had almost single-handedly caused the starvation of millions by using a resource that stopped food crops being grown.
All right I exaggerate but nowhere did Thomson say that they were going to always use cooking oil. They talked of using sustainable biofuels in the future of which are lot are under development. It was an experiment to find an alternative to aviation fuel. But Friends of the Earth got stuck in and pointed out that it would take 100 years for all the people on the flight to save their waste oil before they could have fuelled the flight. Action Aid said millions would be plunged into poverty and Plane Stupid was reported as saying that land would be stolen from the world’s poorest people. All good, subjective comment then! So why did Thomson do it? Was it a cheap publicity stunt as critics claimed?
A few years ago, when biofuels became the fashion, (Friends of the Earth were advocating them at the time as were many scientists) food crops were handed over to those that could produce biofuels. Food prices shot up and there were riots in impoverished countries. The world should have learnt its lesson; Friends did and now oppose biofuels. The future of airline replacement fuels and others has to be something that can be manufactured or is sustainable and doesn’t affect the environment or food supplies. Used cooking oil can be recycled and it could be used for aviation fuel but not entirely as there isn’t enough to go around. But shouting about the number of chip butties we might have to eat to produce recycled cooking oil to fly a short hop only makes for headlines for short sighted newspaper editors. Isn’t it important that engines can use a variety of fuels without having to have them stripped down and cleaned each time? Airlines need to know what effect different substances will have on their engines.
Air France has just flown from Toulouse to Paris using a mix that included vegetable oils but claims this has no impact on the sort of claims made by those charities listed earlier as it does not compete with the food chain or affect water resources.
But Virgin Atlantic’s use of waste gases from industrial steel production may look a better bet. In conjunction with a Swedish company, LanzaTech, they plan to use these gases and, after treatment, use them as fuel on their Heathrow to Shanghai and Delhi flights. But this is at least a year away and it might not work. But, as Richard Branson pointed out, the steel industry could provide 15 billion gallons of fuel each year and all, as a bi-product of its main business.
But what of other biofuels? Algae which is fast growing and renewable has been touted as an idea and research is continuing. But research has been continuing on alternatives for decades. It seems that it only takes spurts when prices rise dramatically or when someone believes that existing fuel supplies will end the day after tomorrow. Will this time be any different?

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