Brazilian biofuel for aviation industry: Test flight by TAM Airlines

TAM Airlines has completed the first successful experimental flight in Latin America using aviation biofuel produced from the oil of the Jatropha curcas, a Brazilian vegetable biomass. The flight took place on the afternoon of 22 November and involved an Airbus A320 from its fleet, having the capacity to transport up to 174 passengers in regular operation. The flight, manned by two TAM pilots, took off from Rio de Janeiro’s international airport, Tom Jobim (Galeão), and flew in Brazilian air space over the Atlantic Ocean for 45 minutes before returning to its point of origin. In addition to the pilots, 18 other passengers, among them technicians and executives from TAM and Airbus, were on the flight.

Libano Barroso, president of TAM Airlines, says: “The involvement of TAM in this experimental flight shows our contribution in a vast project for the development of the production chain for this vegetable biomass biofuel, with the purpose of creating a Brazilian platform for sustainable aviation bio-kerosene.” The next step in this innovative project is to implement and establish a crop of Jatropha curcas, in reduced scale, at TAM’s Technological Centre in São Carlos, located in the countryside in the state of São Paulo.

“The goal of this unit will be to conduct technical and economic feasibility studies to start the implementation of an integrated value chain in Brazil, with the aim of producing biofuel based on Jatropha curcas oil, from the production of raw material to the distribution of bio-kerosene,” explains Barroso. He states that TAM is meeting its social and sustainability commitment, because the production of biofuel with Brazilian raw materials will result in important social and economic benefits, in addition to contributing to a considerable reduction in the emission of gases harmful to the environment.

To ensure the availability of the necessary biofuel for the experimental flight, TAM purchased seeds from Jatropha curcas producers in the North, Southeast and Central-West regions of Brazil, and arranged for its conversion into semi-refined oil which was then exported to the US where UOP LLC, a Honeywell group company, processed the Jatropha curcas oil into bio-kerosene and mixed it with conventional aviation kerosene, in the proportion of 50-50. Known in Brazil as pinhão manso, it is a plant that does not compete with the food chain because it is not suitable for human or animal consumption, and can be planted alongside pastures and food crops.

Studies conducted by the Michigan Technological University along with UOP / Honeywell have demonstrated that aviation biofuels made from Jatropha curcas enable a reduction of between 65% and 80% in carbon emissions in relation to petroleum-derived aviation kerosene.

The first flight by a commercial airline to be powered partly by biofuel took place in Europe, in 2008 when a Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet flew between London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam using fuel derived from a mixture of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. Environmentalists branded the flight a publicity stunt, claiming that biofuel cultivation is not a sustainable option for aviation industry.

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