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Qantas uses mustard seeds in first ever biofuel flight between Australia and US

The Guardian, 30 January 2018
A Qantas plane powered partly by mustard seeds has become the world’s first biofuel flight between Australia and the United States, after landing in Melbourne on Tuesday. The 15-hour flight used a blended fuel that was 10% derived from the brassica carinata, an industrial type of mustard seed that functions as a fallow crop – meaning it can be grown by farmers in between regular crop cycles.

The world-first used a Boeing Dreamliner 787-9 on a scheduled passenger service, QF96, and reduced carbon emissions by 7% compared with the airline’s usual flight over the same LA to Melbourne route. Compared pound for pound with jet fuel, carinata biofuel reduces emissions by 80% over the fuel’s life cycle.

Daniel Tan, an agriculture expert from the University of Sydney, said mustard seed could double as a valuable crop and a source of sustainable fuel for farmers.

“Almost within a day after harvesting, they can press the oil out in their own shed and use it straight into their tractors,” he said.

“Basically it’s good for growing, and also farmers can also use it. If they grow wheat every year it’s not good for the soil. They can grow mustard seed in between the wheat crops, every second or third year, press the oil and use it locally or export it for use in aviation fuel.

“A lot of the biodiesel now being processed is actually from waste oil from places like fish and chip shops. A lot of these oils can be processed, but the problem is that they can’t get consistent supply. The big problem with the biodisel industry in Australia is mainly the continuity of supply.”

One hectare of the crop can be used to produce 400 litres of aviation fuel or 1,400 litres of renewable diesel.

In 2012, Qantas and Jetstar trialled Australia’s first domestic biofuel flights on a blend made of 50% used cooking oil, flying from Sydney to Adelaide and Melbourne to Hobart.

Other airlines around the world have also moved towards incorporating biofuels into their commercial flights. In 2011, Alaska Airlines operated 75 selected flights on a similar cooking oil blend, while Dutch airline KLM operated weekly biofuel flights between New York and Amsterdam for six months in 2013.

Qantas aims to use a form of renewable fuel – not necessarily carinata-derived – for all Los Angeles-based flights by 2020, supplied by US company SG Preston.

The airline is aiming to set up an Australian biorefinery in the near future in partnership with Canadian company Agrisoma Biosciences, which extracted the carinata-derived fuel for Tuesday’s flight, a spokeswoman said.

Under current fuel specifications, biofuel blends are capped at 50%, but a Qantas spokeswoman said new specifications could permit 100% biofuel flights in the future.

A 2017 estimate said air travel accounted for 2.5% of all carbon dioxide emissions, with the total emissions expected to quadruple by 2050.