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article imageRichard Branson's Virgin Coconut Airways ready to fly

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By Chris V. Thangham     Mar 2, 2008 in Environment
Richard Branson’s aviation company sent its Virgin Atlantic's 747 to Amsterdam from Heathrow Airport yesterday for the first biofuel airline flight. Though it is a pioneer flight, critics call it “a flight to nowhere.”
The historic flight happened yesterday when the Boeing 747 flew with three quarters of jet fuel and the remaining mixture contained 80 per cent jet fuel and oil from 150,000 coconuts and palms.
Branson told a press conference, held next to the aircraft in a Heathrow hangar:
Virgin Atlantic, and its partners, are proving that you can find an alternative to traditional jet fuel and fly a plane on new technology, such as sustainable biofuel.Branson is planning to further work on this project by investing the profits from his aviation business into biofuels production. But critics argue because of the increased dependency on biofuels, the prices of basic food have gone up in developing countries and is harming the environment by encouraging deforestation.
The project partners involving General Electric, Boeing and Imperial Renewables, want to appease the critics and say these products come from existing farms. Oil from babassu palms comes from the wild forests in Brazil.
However, to meet the demands of aviation industry, more coconut plantations have to be started and most likely it will lead to deforestation. Also, the babassu palms are not available in mass amounts.
Branson understands this problem, but wants to find other alternatives to merge with this plan, such as using algae which can be cultivated in ponds without the need for extra lands.
Branson said:
This pioneering flight will enable those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future, fuels which will power our aircraft in the years ahead through sustainable next-generation oils, such as algae.
Environmental groups, however, are not enthused with this proposal either -- they say algae will produce more carbon dioxide than is saved by using it as an alternative fuel. Also, the ponds of the algae need to filled with water always and may compete with water sources for others.
Kenneth Richter, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner, said:
Biofuels are a major distraction in the fight against climate change. There is mounting evidence that the carbon savings from biofuels are negligible. If Virgin was really serious about reducing the aviation industry's impact on the environment it would support calls for aircraft emissions to be included in the climate change bill.Aircraft account for 5.5 per cent of UK carbon dioxide emissions and Virgin Atlantic is not the first aviation group to experiment with alternative fuels. Earlier this month, the jet manufacturer Airbus flew an A380 superjumbo with a mix of gas-to-liquid fuel.
The UK government wants to address the biofuels concerns and will review the environmental and economic impact of biofuels. Based on its findings, they will formulate a plan of whether to replace the existing fuels with biofuels.
EU is planning to issue a proposal to increase the proportion of biofuels in petrol and diesel to 10 per cent by 2020 and UK may not participate in it if the government review raises doubts.
Virgin Airways and others are better off finding other alternative resources than using biofuels from food crops. The oil from 150,000 coconuts could have met the demands for thousands of families in Africa and the poor worldwide.
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