Clearing the Air: Aviation Exec Tries to Go Green

Airline maverick pushes technology. Could it clear the air?

ByABC News
February 09, 2009, 7:07 PM

May 5, 2007 — -- Virgin Atlantic Airlines owner Sir Richard Branson is placing his latest bet on biofuels, hoping to one day power commercial aircraft with something other than petroleum.

Branson, who is known for his competitive spirit, made headlines recently after turning to the United States and Boeing to buy 15 787's to replace some of his Airbus fleet.

While the deal made plenty of money for Boeing, $2.8 billion, it comes with a promise to "go green."

In the last 25 years, the amount of jet fuel used in this country has more than doubled to more than 70 million gallons a day.

It is expensive, and the vast majority of it comes from overseas. But Branson is convinced that this could change.

He and Boeing are exploring environmentally friendly biofuel and plan to conduct a test run with a 747 by the end of next year.

"We're confident that we can fly a plane in 12 months time using biofuels and having zero emissions," Branson said.

General Electric Engineers, who design engines for Boeing, are already testing a number of potential biofuel sources like corn, algae, switchgrass and even newspaper.

Drivers are already turning to alternative fuels such as vegetable oil to power their vehicles. Branson's venture will be decidedly more high-tech.

And the challenges are substantial -- chief among them is finding a fuel that doesn't freeze at high altitudes.

ABC aviation analyst John Nance said it is not certain a biofuel can be developed with enough power to fly a jet.

"The danger is that after a lot of research, we are going to find that we are still going to need to have a large amount of petroleum, basically fossil fuel, in addition to some of the bio-fuel to make this work," he said.

With the rising cost of oil and the growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, Branson says the industry has to do something.

And Nance agrees that while Branson's goal of flying a commercial flight on biofuel in two years may be a reach, at least he's reaching.

"Up until now, all of our discussion of biofuel and aviation has been someday, sometime, someway," Nance said. "It is thrilling to see heavyweights like this get involved on the launching pad."

ABC News' David Muir reported this story for "World News."

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