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OM in the News: Airlines Fly on a Sugar High

October 15, 2014
GOL's flight uses a blend of farnesane and jet fuel

GOL’s flight uses a blend of farnesane and jet fuel

The red-and-white Boeing 737 looked like any other plane on the tarmac here at Orlando International Airport. But 2 months ago, the plane became the first commercial flight powered by a new jet fuel made from sugar cane. The passenger flight, operated by the Brazilian airline GOL, flew from Florida to São Paulo on a 10% blend of a clear liquid called farnesane mixed with regular jet fuel. And last month, Lufthansa flew a passenger plane from Frankfurt to Berlin on farnesane, which can be mixed directly with petroleum jet fuel without any changes to planes, engines or fueling equipment.

Renewable bio-jet fuels like farnesane hold the elusive promise of better energy security, reduced carbon emissions and lower fuel costs — an increasingly pressing concern as international regulators prepare to tighten regulations, reports The New York Times (Oct. 8, 2014). The global aviation industry has also set ambitious goals to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, including slashing emissions by 50% by 2050 compared with 2005.

Airlines like United, KLM and Alaska Airlines have flown planes powered by oil made from algae, used vegetable cooking oil and plants like camelina and jatropha. In spite of initial excitement, commercial airlines have not widely adopted bio-jet fuels, mainly because of their high cost. But farnesane could be more commercially viable because it is produced in Brazil, which has a robust policy and infrastructure to promote and produce biofuels. (Brazil is the world’s largest producer of sugar cane as well as the second-largest producer of ethanol. A majority of light vehicles on the roads in Brazil can run on ethanol, which is made from domestic sugar cane.) According to rigorous testing by plane makers like Boeing, farnesane and other types of bio-jet fuel actually perform better and burn cleaner than conventional jet fuel.

Classroom discussion questions:

1.Why is this new jet fuel an OM issue?

2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of farnesane?

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