Fly the Cellulosic Skies: Will Second-Generation Biofuels Take Off?

Japan Airlines recently announced plans to test fly one of its aircraft using a form of “second generation” biofuel in early 2009.

The demonstration flight will be the first of its kind in Asia, according to the business news outlet, and follows the lead of Virgin Atlantic, which successfully completed the world’s first biofuel-powered flight earlier this year.

Japan Airlines said it is committed to finding a viable second- generation biofuel source that derives from cellulose — a woody type of plant matter — rather than from food crops.

According to science website, global demand for cheaper and more sustainable fuel sources is considered a partial cause for skyrocketing food prices worldwide, as many farmers — especially in Brazil and the United States — switch to fuel crops such as soy, corn, rapeseed and sugar cane.

Writing in the International Herald Tribune, critic Eric Holt-Gimenez noted additional environmental impacts of farmed biofuels, including loss of biodiversity, and increased carbon dioxide emissions when trees are cut or burned to make way for new plantations.

Second-generation cellulosic biofuels, however, come from scrubby trees, grasses, reeds and straw, need minimal water or fertilizer to grow, and don’t require nearly as much farmland as food-based fuels, according to a report on environmental news site

The fuel is produced when cellulose, the part of a plant cell wall that makes it rigid, is broken down into sugars that ferment into ethanol.

This seems like a golden ticket, but its viability is already being questioned.

Grist Magazine quotes two agriculturally savvy sources — the U.S. Department of Agriculture and chairman of the House Agricultural Committee — as saying real-time cellulosic fuel supplies are still years off and may not “ever get off the ground,” because the energy yields are too low to be competitive.

What’s more, research and production remains expensive. reported the cost of a cellulosic refinery as $1.55 billion, compared to $62 million for a regular biofuel refinery.

The report asserts that cellulosic fuels could produce more energy than corn biofuel and have lower environmental impacts.

Harvey Blanch of the San Francisco-based Joint BioEnergy Institute told the site that the cellulosic biofuels have great potential for transportation.

“You can’t fly planes on photovoltaic panels,” he said.

But if Japan Airlines and Virgin are successful, they may be flying planes with fuel that grows on trees.

–Julia Hengst/


“Japan Airlines plans cellulosic biofuels flight”
Cleantech Network, June 23, 2008

“High fuel prices to make cellulosic biofuels increasingly competitive with gas”, June 2, 2008

“The biofuel myths”
International Herald Tribune, July 10, 2007

“Money — and patience — needed for 2nd-generation biofuels”, June 4, 2008

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