Algae-viation fuel

Air New Zealand and the Boeing Company are working with a Kiwi bioengineering company to make an eco-friendly aviation fuel from pond algae. By Ashwin Tombat

Air New Zealand and US aircraft manufacturer Boeing are secretly working with biofuel developer Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation, based in Blenheim, New Zealand, to create the world's first eco-friendly aviation fuel, made of wild algae. If the experiment is successful, it could give the world an environmentally sustainable aviation fuel.

Air New Zealand is undertaking the risk analysis. And, if everything goes off according to schedule, it will make an aircraft available near the city of Nelson, in the Tasman district of New Zealand, to test the biofuel. While one engine would be powered by normal aviation fuel, the algae-based bio-fuel would drive the other engine. The fuels would be stored in individual tanks on the aircraft, which can be directed to the specific engines.

Super-scum
The fuel is essentially derived from bacterial pond scum formed as a result of photosynthesis from the action of sunlight and carbon dioxide on nutrient-rich water sources such as sewage ponds. The company, formed in October 2005, began working on the project in May last year, after it met a request from the local council to deal with excess algae in sewage ponds. Aquaflow devised a method to harvest the sewage pond algae and chemically extract fatty lipids for fuel.

Until now the relatively new Blenheim company's focus has been making biodiesel for vehicles and boats. The company shot to fame when Environment Minister David Parker test drove a Land Rover powered by Aquaflow's blend of algae biofuel and diesel (5 per cent algae fuel and 95 per cent conventional fuel) around the Parliament House forecourt, just a year after it was developed.

Like a Virgin
Virgin Airline boss Richard Branson met Parker in January to discuss biofuel, including Aquaflow's technology for wild algae. A Branson subsidiary, Virgin Fuels, announced in April that it was working with Boeing to demonstrate biofuel in a 747-400. The focus is on testing algae-derived jet fuel, to determine its freezing point in a variety of circumstances.

New Zealand media outfits reported a visit by Boeing to Aquaflow earlier this year. Boeing has stated publicly since then that it believes algae can be the base for an airline fuel of the future. Boeing's Dave Daggett was reported earlier this year as saying that algae ponds totalling 34,000 square kilometres could produce enough fuel to reduce the net CO2 footprint for the entire aviation industry to zero.

Hush is the word
However, none of the parties involved will talk on the record about the joint venture development because of confidentiality agreements, but whispers about the project were circulating at the glittering launch function of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Seattle in the US earlier this month. An Aquaflow spokesperson has said that she could not say anything about any ventures with anyone, because to do so would compromise projects on the drawing board. But she did confirm that a $5 million capital-raising exercise had been successful, and the company had a major international shareholder. The company had also received $90,000 of funding from the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and would seek further funding for the commercialisation of its technology later this year.

Still in the red
Aquaflow, which was recently invited to join the highly regarded Girvan Institute of Technology in Silicon Valley, California, had been inundated with inquiries from around the world since Parker's test drive. The company made a loss of nearly half a million dollars in first half of FY2006-07; there was no operating profit because the company had not yet sold its technology. However, the new funding has put the company in good stead to go forward.