Jet makers looking for alternate fuels

May 27, 2008 5:11:25 PM PDT
Some of the world's biggest aviation companies are turning to alternative fuels - made from sources as diverse as hydrogen cells or algae - as soaring oil prices drive the search to build and fly more fuel-efficient planes. The Boeing Co. and its European rival Airbus showed off their latest alternative-fuel projects Tuesday at the Berlin Air Show, held against the backdrop of oil prices that hit $135 a barrel last week.

Boeing displayed a one-seater demonstration airplane that can fly on batteries and hydrogen fuel cells. While the plane is still in the early stages, the company said in a statement that test flights have shown "a manned airplane can maintain a straight level flight with fuel cells as the only power source."

The Chicago-based plane maker said the technology could potentially power small manned and unmanned aircraft. But it said it "does not envision fuel cells will provide primary power for large passenger airplanes," although it will continue investigating their potential.

Airbus brought along a demonstrator version of its A320 passenger jet that uses fuel cells to power some of the aircraft's steering systems. The company said it sees great potential in fuel cell applications.

Dutch airline KLM, meanwhile, said at the show that it had signed a contract with AlgaeLink for fuel made from algae for a pilot project whose first test flight is scheduled for this fall.

AlgaeLink plans to set up a pair of plants this year - in the Netherlands and Spain - and said its algae-based kerosene will be mixed with conventional fuel. But KLM's goal is to fuel its entire fleet with kerosene from algae and other plant-based oils.

Some analysts predict a barrel of oil will reach as high as $200 in the next year, leading the industry to look toward lighter, more efficient machinery, as well as alternative fuels. Airports are also trying to streamline operations, reduce bottlenecks and improve efficiency.

The show is being held at Berlin's Schoenefeld Airport, where on Tuesday the plethora of jets provided a contrasting backdrop for the many veterans of the Berlin Airlift who gathered at before the 60th anniversary of the 1948-49 their blockade running. In the airlift, hundreds of planes flew to and from Berlin to supply the city with food, fuel, medicine and hope.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered "special thanks, especially to America and Great Britain that they helped Germany and the city of Berlin in a difficult hour."

The airlift has been called the "first battle of the Cold War" - one fought without guns or bullets.

"History could have turned out differently" without the extraordinary effort to keep Berlin from falling entirely into Soviet hands, Merkel said.

The air show, held every two years, opens to the public Friday and runs until Sunday.