February 25, 2008 —
Virgin Airlines showcased the first commercial biofuel flight on Sunday, sending a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam on a mix of standard jet fuel and palm and nut derived oils. The plane contained no passengers and Virgin doesn't have any immediate plans to integrate biofuel into its business, but CEO Richard Branson said the pioneering flight would encourage "those of us who are serious about reducing our carbon emissions to go on developing the fuels of the future."
Reactions to the test have been decidedly mixed. Branson, who has developed a reputation for using publicity stunts to raise his own celebrity and the profile of his Virgin empire, received heavy criticism for what many environmentalists see as an flashy and elaborate greenwash. Only 20 percent of the fuel used to power the flight was biofuel, and the mix of coconut and babassu oil is commercially unviable, even if Virgin's assertions that it was produced sustainably are correct. Many have pointed out that biofuels aren't always even better for the environment than fossil fuels, especially when you factor in the carbon cost of processing and transporting the fuel.
But while there may be little value to this test flight outside of the public relations realm, Virgin insists that it's committed to finding a profitable and sustainable biofuel that can reduce its carbon emissions. One possible fuel that's being explored is algae, which is cheap to grow and doesn't compete for land with food production.