Soaring or Bobbing: Which Is Greener?


Last year Virgin Atlantic ran a Boeing 747-400 from London to Amsterdam using an aviation fuel mix containing coconut oil biofuel. Undoubtedly a triumph of technical engineering, it was also labeled “high-altitude greenwash” by environmentalists. The problem was a familiar one.

If Virgin would power its entire fleet with biofuel, it would have to use about half of the UK’s arable land.

Jos Dings, European Federation of Transport and the Environment

Last week, a Continental Boeing 737-800 took a 90 minute flight with the help of something far more promising – algae. It’s the hottest fuel of the future, a creature thriving in hostile, even toxic, conditions and yielding enormous quantities of energy. Most importantly, it doesn’t grow on land – so the problem of food verses fuel disappears. Impressively, the fuel under trial doesn’t require any expensive modifications of aircraft technology and acts like standard aviation fuel at extreme temperatures. It all sounds a little too good to be true.

But is the money going into the right kind of aviation technology? A few days ago, Inhabitat featured the gorgeous design of the Aeolus helium-filled airship. No emissions, no noise to disrupt the biophony, and the second most common element in the universe filling its sail. (Or maybe helium isn’t the best choice. The world has remained leery of hydrogen-filled aircraft ever since the Hindenberg disaster of 1937. George Monbiot makes a good case for rediscovering hydrogen airships at The Guardian).

There’s no denying how green airship technology is – yet a 40-hour transatlantic crossing might be a bitter pill to swallow, and there’s a world of difference between weathering a storm in an airship and powering over it in a plane. Perhaps that’s where hybrid airships come in.

For now, jetting around on pond slime sounds a fine idea.

Image: OiMax

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.