back to article Virgin biofuel jumbo trials won't use algae

Trials of biofuels for airliners will use conventional, controversial feedstocks, it has been reported. Virgin Atlantic and Boeing had hoped to employ so-called "second-generation" biofuel feedstocks such as algae which wouldn't threaten food production or biodiversity. The news comes as the UK government has announced a review …


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  1. Neil Hoskins

    All For It

    After much reflection, I've decided I'm all in favour of bio fuels. Relying on food to fuel our decadent pursuits while others are starving might finally get some people in the developed world wondering if the rich/poor status quo is morally acceptable.

  2. G R Goslin


    "The UK government takes this issue very seriously. We are not prepared to go beyond current UK target levels for biofuels until we are satisfied it can be done sustainably," said transport secretary Ruth Kelly yesterday.

    The UK will still require all transport fuel to be 2.5 per cent biofuel from April, however.

    Expect a price hike any time from April, then

  3. Dunstan Vavasour

    Need for effective biocides

    Once the fuel has been derived from a biological source, there is a pressing need for it to be effectively sterilised before it gets into the normal supply chain. If there are large amounts of living algae or bacteria in the stuff when it actually goes into the planes, the possibilities for clumps of goo to grow in the aircraft fuel tanks or fuel transfer systems would seem to be a problem.

  4. Steven Jones

    Need for effective biocides

    Well of course this is an obvious problem as bottles of cooking oil (readily usable as a diesel substitute) are always growing "clumps of goo" in the form of living organisms. Or rather they don't... Of all the potential problems with biofuel then this is the one that would least worry me. Any fuel sufficiently refined to work in a combustion engine is not going to be capable of sustaining life.

  5. Tim


    Not likely. Regular kerosene is derived from a biological source, after all and that doesn't grow mould in fuel tanks.

    The process is quite complex and involves extracting algal oil from the algae by squeezing it in a giant wine press, dissolving it in hexane, or (somewhat ironically) using lots of liquified, pressurised CO2 as a solvent. The extracted oil is then made thin enough to burn efficiently using a process called transesterification. This involves using another alcohol to neutralise the fatty acids and remove glycerin from the fuel, leaving you with an ester of the alcohol and a new alcohol which is your fuel. It isn't alive in any way at all. Scrape the gloop off the top and you've got a useful fuel which has as much in common with algae as unleaded does with a herd of stegosaurus.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    No, there's no need for biocides. The algae would be cooked in a fermenter to produce a liquor containing either ethanol or butanol. That's recovered using distillation to make a near pure product.

    I assume Virgin aren't going to try scumjet because Branson's worried about burning close relatives?

  7. Dunstan Vavasour


    I stand corrected.

  8. Anonymous Coward

    Re: Need for effective biocides

    Fish-fans have known for years how to filter algae out of their tanks. No problem.

    As for bacteria, it shouldn't be a problem. After all, it's not bacteria's food we're putting into the tank but its piss, and no organism lives in its own piss. Wine kills yeast, remember!

  9. Perpetual Cyclist

    Biofuels are a disaster already

    Specifically corn based ethanol, as subsidised in the US to the tune of $1 a gallon. Already, 20% of the US corn crop goes to bioethanol. There is a global shortage of artificial fertilizer and biofuel growers are out bidding food farmers. This at a time when world grain stocks are at a 30 year low, the price of wheat has doubled, the price of rice risen by 50% , both in a month. The price of hops has risen 500%. Beer could be £4 a pint THIS YEAR. Half the population of the world lives on less than £1 a day. Double the price of food staples and you will get widespread famine. Biofuels are not the primary cause of the shortages, but they do represent the difference between sufficient food and wide spread famine THIS YEAR.

  10. hugo tyson

    Diesel bug

    Diesel bug (so called) can grow at the interface between diesel and water. Not a problem for your cooking oil, but it can be for tanks that hold water condensate in the bottom. Biocides are used in recreational boats because of this - the bug slime can block filters and injectors. AIUI aircraft tanks have drains at low points which are regularly checked to drain any water condensate, so it shouldn't apply. Road vehicles don't tend to have fuel tank drains though, I think it's only the rapid turnover of fuel that saves diesel cars/trucks from the bug - if it's there it never has chance to build up.

  11. Anonymous Coward


    That line about first generation biofuels pushing up the price of beer has me worried.

    Substitute the food for algae now!

    Then in 2010 we can think of something else if we need to.

    Can you burn the gas from my beer farts?

  12. P. J. Isserlis

    In the interests of accuracy in these debates

    1. So many people still natter on about the price of petrol per GALLON, especially in the American context. Why? Perhaps most are unaware that an American gallon is significantly smaller than an Imperial gallon:

    1 US gallon = 3.7854118 litres

    1 Imperial gallon = 4.54609188 litres

    So simplistically saying a price per gallon does not translate so easily.

    May I suggest moving forward to the last century and using metric measurements (even I, late fifties, had to use the metric system for most of my school days).

    2. A pound/dollar per day. What does that mean? A pound a day in Europe would barely fetch a bar of chocolate. In much of the "third world" it would buy a full evening meal of good quality. What a foolish way to assess poverty or wealth.

    How about working time to pay for family meal or something?

  13. michael

    Chocks away!

    If its flying on algae then the pilot must be Biggles. OK I'm going back to my corner.

  14. Perpetual Cyclist

    @P. J. Isserlis

    There was a recent series of programmes on Radio 4 about the reality of living on $2 (£1) a day in different third world countries. The uniform theme was grinding poverty with zero savings, zero health care, zero safety net, dire living conditions, and living hand to mouth day to day, scraping together enough cash to buy a few veg. or a little chicken if they had a good day. People still need to buy clothes, pay the bus fare, bring up the children. Eating in restaurants was not even a remote possibility. (Agreed you can get a damn good meal in India for a £1, or you could ten years ago when I was there).

  15. Dr Stephen Jones

    Just what the Malthusians want

    "Double the price of food staples and you will get widespread famine"

    So biofuels make poor people in developing countries suffer, while curing the guilt of the affluent?

    This is what makes them so perfect for the Population-Kontrollers who are driving the "Global Warming" scam.

    Glove, meet hand.

  16. A J Stiles
    Paris Hilton

    Here we go again with the whingeing

    You can't use fossil fuels because it upsets the greens (and beside which, they're running out). Someone works out a way to make fuel from plants (which aren't going to run out) and the greens *still* get upset, this time because growing plants for fuel means that the land can't be used to grow plants for food.

    There's a simple way to make sure that the demands for engine fuel and food don't conflict: make the fuel from the *in*edible parts of plants.

    Though I'm sure the greens will still find a reason to get upset .....

  17. Red Bren

    If they're not using algae

    Are they using olive oil? Which begs the question, where does all the extra virgin olive oil come from?

    I thank you!

  18. amanfromMars Silver badge

    How very bizarre?

    "However, it appears likely that initially these will use the more controversial crop-based stuff rather than snazzier scum-sourced juice. "

    Why ... whenever concerns for farming lands were so eloquently expressed? Surely it should be the pond-life magic juice trialled?

  19. Anonymous Coward

    @Neil Hoskins

    I know you were being ironic, but really, what do you think the more socially conscious peoples are going to do about it? Launch a massive popular revolution with aging Kalashnikovs and pointy sticks, while the highly developed oppressors immolate them with over-the-horizon airstrikes?

    That's just a sophisticated way of saying, "Do what I say or this puppy gets it."

  20. John Paul McAuley

    the marsian

    is it just me or does he make more sense every week?

    i actually understood what he's said the last few times i'v read his comments.

  21. Nick Sargeant

    Oil from algae would seem to make so much sense ..

    I would like to invest in a British company that is going to find that second- or third-generation algae based process. Perhaps we should have an energy Dragon's Den on TV to sift through our unique supply of inventiveness and extraordinary capability to come up with some proposals to solve the problems with commercial exploitation of these alternative energy ideas?

  22. Tim Blair

    hot air?

    couldn't branson be cloned and all the hot air and methane be pumped into the engines?

  23. Anonymous Coward

    Alternative fuel

    Solution: Seal the house of commons. Attach hot air balloon fleet to roof. Now we only have to wait for a wind in the right direction and we've saved a 747 from flying.

  24. Uwe Dippel
    Paris Hilton

    @P. J. Isserlis && Evening Meals

    There are places where 1$ or 1£ buys you a great evening meal, accepted.

    But life is not made up of evening meals, alas. If acquiring a legal version of Vista necessitates several months of work, your proposal to calculate in 'working time' will shine a very dim light on those places. 'They' don't need Vista? Maybe. But what about healthcare? dental work? retirement benefits? housing? clothing? education? quality education?

    Paris, because she inherited more evening meals than she'll ever be able to consume

  25. Anonymous John

    Makes you wonder about the 777 crash landing.

    Perhaps the fuel pipes were blocked by algae.

    Coat please. The one with the green stains.

  26. Gideon Sheps

    Why the greens would continue whingeing

    The greens would still whinge because we're still BURNING something... and emitting CO2. Doesn't matter what you use, if you have to burn it, there's still something to complain about. Until you get to the algae powered fuel cell.

  27. Martin Usher

    Will help to give perspective

    It'll be quite interesting to see just how much fuel is used and how it relates to land area and crop production. At the moment the disconnect means we don't know just what that transatlantic ticket is worth. Assuming we could use unconverted corn (i.e. 100% efficiency) and a full 747's fuel load of 40 tons then we'd need about 20hA's worth for each transatlantic flight....maybe a year's food supply for a quite large village.

    Once we see how obscene it is turning food into fuel then maybe we'll stop. Ethanol isn't a very efficient liquid fuel either -- its not a new thing to use it in engines, it used to be popular for competitions because it didn't detonate at high compression and you could squirt tons of the stuff into the engine where the energy needed to evaporate it kept the engine from melting.

  28. Feargal Reilly

    @ A J Stiles

    The issue isn't really what is being used per se, it's more a question of whether what is being used is sustainable, both in terms of availability and waste impact.

    The aim is to have as little permanent impact on the natural environment as possible. The idea of bio-fuels was very appealing on first inspection, but the reality of our excesses is biting again.

  29. Mark
    Thumb Up

    What about the great Brussels giveaway

    What about the hundreds of thousands of acres of land that Europe pays farmers NOT to grow food on. Maybe we could grow fuel crop on that.

    Just convince farmers to grow a crop that isn't already overstocked and they land will be put to use.

  30. John Vaudin

    Developing Countries benefit from higher food prices

    One of the biggest problems for the developing world is that they can't sell their produce into the developed world - partly due to subsidies and tariffs, and partly due to the massive food surpluses in the west. So increasing demand, and therefore prices, for crops is not necessarily a bad thing for many developing countries.

    I'm not suggesting there aren't any downsides, but I grow weary of the current 'biofuels are evil' cult. We have to face the facts that the days of cheap easy energy are over. Any solution we come up with is going to have drawbacks, and unless we want to return to a peasant way of life, which I fear is what a lot the greens would prefer, then we are going to have to put up with some downsides. Get over it.

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