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A Darker Side To Biofuel Production?

China Eastern Airlines this week conducted its first biofuel-powered test flight using a domestically produced fuel. The airline ultimately aims to begin commercial flights powered by the biofuel, but accepts that widespread usage may be some way off.

The test flight involved an Airbus A320, which took off from Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport and flew for 85 minutes before making a safe return. The biofuel performance “was no different from traditional fuels”, Captain Liu Zhimin and co-pilot Zhou Xiaoqing were reported as saying in local media. 

Sinopec, the unit of China Petroleum and Chemical Corp that produced the biofuel, said the fuel was certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China. China becomes the fourth country to gain the capacity to self-develop biofuel, joining the United States, France and Finland.

Sinopec added that the biofuel was developed from a blend of palm oil and recycled cooking oil. While the project should be commended for its intention to seek sustainable alternatives to regular jet fuel, the use of palm oil unfortunately raises a darker side to the biofuel business.

In this specific case, no further details about the palm oil and where it was sourced were given. But looking at the issue generally, it is true to say that the use of palm oil is largely responsible for the destruction of rainforests. This is because the trees it is produced from are planted over vast areas in what was once rainforest habitat, cleared for the purpose. Taking an overall perspective, the use of biofuel produced as a direct result of deforestation can hardly be considered sustainability in action.

So as biofuel usage is increasingly investigated in the aviation industry, the issue of wider sustainability must be taken into full consideration. It is not a problem for aviation alone however; palm oil is also used in a wide range of everyday consumer products. Nevertheless, this is one environmental area in which aviation has the chance to take the lead, perhaps by means of self-regulation. The collective use of truly green feedstocks in biofuel production would provide our industry with the chance to dramatically enhance its environmental reputation in the longer-term – an opportunity which should not be lightly dismissed.

TAGS: Operations
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