A Qantas flight between Sydney and Adelaide has used a 50-50 mix of conventional fuel and refined cooking oil.
The biofuel costs far more than conventional fuel, partly due to its importation from the United States.
But Qantas said it absorbed the one-off cost because it was keen to highlight the need for an Australian biofuel source, at a time when airlines and passengers around the world are dealing with high jet fuel and carbon emission costs.
Before the flight took off, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce announced that the Federal Government had given the airline $500,000 to fund a study into the feasibility of alternative aviation biofuels.
Mr Joyce said establishing a sustainable aviation fuel industry was necessary given the immediate challenges ahead.
“We need to get ready for a future that is not based on traditional jet fuel or frankly we don’t have a future,” he said.
“And it’s not just the price of oil that’s the issue - it’s also the price of carbon. From July, Qantas will be the only airline in the world to face liabilities in three jurisdictions, so our sense of urgency is justified.”
Federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson says Qantas will investigate the production and commercial viability of sustainable aviation fuel in Australia with two key objectives.
“Firstly, a feed stock pathways study that will assess the long term viability of biofuels feed stock and supply chain pathways. Secondly, a refining and distribution capacity study to investigate how Australia as a nation can use existing refinery plants and fuel distribution infrastructure for aviation biofuel production,” Mr Ferguson said.
John Valastro of Qantas said the flight on Friday morning was a commercial first in Australia, and would have produced far less carbon emissions than if conventional jet fuel were used.
“We’re talking about a 60 per cent reduction in the overall life cycle of the fuel, so that’s a substantial improvement,” he said.
The biofuel component of the fuel used for the flight is from refined cooking oil.
Biofuels are sometimes criticised for cutting into potential food supplies but Qantas says it has used a product that is not a food crop.
The oil came from and was refined in Houston before it was shipped to Australia.
It has cost more than four times an equivalent flight using normal fuel, partly because of the shipping distance involved.
But Mr Valastro says passengers did not have to pay any surcharge.
“We’re actually using this opportunity to highlight what needs to be done, getting people on board,” he said.
Aviation industry analyst Tom Ballantyne says Qantas and other airlines want governments to invest in the biofuels push.
“We know we can make them, we know they’re exactly the same as jet fuel and have absolutely no impact on the operation of the aircraft,” he said.
“The trick is making enough and building the infrastructure to provide that.
“What is actually needed is money. A lot of the big airlines’ argument is that governments should invest money in the refineries which are required to produce these biofuels. They argue that very strongly, but so far many governments have been a bit slow in coming forward.”
Flight captain Phil Davenport said the aircraft handled just the same as any other.
“There was no real difference on the way over apart from a very slight reduction in the fuel flows on the engine that was using it, which basically means it was more economical and more efficient than the normal fuel,” he said on arrival in Adelaide.
The hope is that biofuels will eventually cost about the same as current jet fuel.
Peter Zurzolo heads the Future Farming Co-operative Research Centre.
At Narrogin, south-east of Perth, he and others are trialing whether the common mallee eucalypt is a viable biofuel source.
“Not only is it a common tree but it’s well understood. In WA alone, we know there’s about 13,000 hectares on about 1,000 farms,” he said.
“We’re providing what we’re hoping is a long-term sustainable and regionally-based feedstock supply that can be competitively grown into different processing units, hopefully around regional Australia,” he said.
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