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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Weed-based aircraft fuel offers many positives

What if there were jet fuels that delivered better mileage and left a smaller carbon footprint?

Fill ’er up!

Boeing and other airline companies report that a plant-derived elixir like that may be only a year away. The most encouraging plant, camelina, was used to light the lamps of ancient Romans but has been largely dismissed as a weed. It’s the ugly stepchild of canola oil and tastes yuckier, but it is the source of one of the biofuel blends commercial airlines have tested in the past year and a half.

“It meets all jet fuel requirements and then some,” said Billy Glover, who heads Boeing’s environmental strategy group.

Air New Zealand said last week that a 50 percent blend of biofuels and traditional fuel would increase fuel efficiency by 1 percent. That might not sound like much, but that would save 1.4 metric tons of fuel on a 12-hour flight. The environmental benefits are even greater, with a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of about 4.5 metric tons for the same flight.

In the past, excitement over biofuels has been tempered with an increase in food prices and questionable environmental benefits. That’s because those plants either were food, like corn, or competed with other food crops. Plus, the preparation and clearing of land diminishes “carbon sinks,” which absorb carbon dioxide rather than reflect it into the atmosphere where it can be trapped.

But these fuels are derived from camelina, algae, babassu (a tree that grows in the Amazon region of South America) and jatropha (a scrub brush). They don’t displace crops, use minimal fertilizers and don’t need heavy irrigation. Algae appear to be eight to 10 years away from being useful, according to molecular biologists, but camelina can be used as soon as it is certified as A-1 jet fuel.

Camelina is being grown in Washington, Montana, Idaho, the Dakotas and the high plains of Texas. Growers say there is the potential to produce 1 billion gallons of camelina-based oil throughout the United States. Canada, Australia and central Europe are other prime spots. It can be rotated with other crops and grown on marginal lands.

About 3 percent of greenhouse gases come from aircraft fuel, so this breakthrough wouldn’t be a cure-all. But any low-carbon alternatives are worth celebrating and can perhaps spark clean-energy research with broader applications.

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