Fuels made from plants hold much promise - they're biodegradable, engines that use them may last longer, they cut carbon emissions, and, it's hoped, they could lessen dependence on oil. So far, though, biofuels have at least an equal number of disadvantages to match the potential benefits.
But research – especially into non-food biofuels – continues. Especially intriguing are experiments that replace traditional jet fuel with fuels made from algae, coconuts, and flowers.
Earlier this year, a Continental jet accelerated down the runway at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Nothing out of the ordinary for Capt. Rich Jankowski, who countless times in his 38-year career had eased such two-engine Boeing 737-800s into the sky. Except on this experimental flight, one of the engines Jankowski relied on was burning fuel derived from microscopic algae to push the 45-ton aircraft into the air and keep it aloft — a first in aviation history.
Last year, Virgin Atlantic flew the first commercial jet on biofuels, a 40-minute jaunt between London and Amsterdam in which one engine burned a mix of 80 percent conventional jet fuel and 20 percent biofuel derived from coconuts and babassu nuts. Other test flights have followed, culminating in a 90-minute Japan Airlines flight with one engine burning a blend of biofuel from camelina — a weedy flower native to Europe — and regular jet fuel at the end of January.