Sort of. They are testing what happens when you put biofuel in one engine:
Japan Airlines said Monday it plans to test fly a Boeing 747 partially powered by biofuel by early next year as a way to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
JAL will use a biofuel mixed with kerosene in one of four engines on the jet, with the three remaining engines powered by ordinary jet fuel or kerosene, the airline said.
The carrier said it plans to use a new generation of biofuel made of nonedible materials such as algae to avoid using potential food sources.
With high oil prices killing the airlines, they have no choice but to give biofuels a try in their attempt to hedge their fuel bills. The reference to "nonedible materials such as algae" suggests that they intend to use cellulosic ethanol. What the articles fails to mention, however,is that this technology is entirely experimental. A recent post on Japan Economy News & Blog makes it clear that ethanol from algae has a long way to go before it is commercially viable:
Although the algae is currently producing less than half of the ten grams per liter that would make it cost-effective against oil, the algae also consumes carbon dioxide, and thus appears to yield more energy than it consumes. One current challenge is that only about 60% of the oil produced can currently be extracted, and the professor is
looking at ways to boost that ratio.
In order to potentially boost productivity, Watanabe is hooking up with Denso to create a larger outdoor facility that should provide a greater yield of the green stuff.
According to the article, given a yield of 10 grams of oil per liter,it would take an area the size of Fukushima Prefecture to grow enough algae to meet Japan’s oil needs. Thus, a natural solution seems to be to cultivate the algae at sea. However, one major obstacle remains: the freshwater Botryococcus needs to mutate or be genetically engineered
into a strain that can survive the high seas.
The story concludes by mentioning Richard Branson's recent PR stunt:
In February, Virgin Atlantic successfully conducted the world's first flight of a commercial aircraft powered partially with biofuel -- a mixture of coconut and babassu oil in one of its four main fuel tanks.
Even here, what Branson did still raises a lot questions. Triple Pundit notes that:
The debatable point is this, it took the oil of 150,000 coconuts and some babassu palm oil to power only 20% of one of four fat tanks on one of his 747 Virgin Atlantic airliners. The headlined trip launched at Heathrow airport and touched down at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, making the mark on what some would claim could be a revolution in environmentally responsible aviation.
The Wall Street Journal's Environmental Capital blog cites the math done by the Petroleum Review:
Some companies have already taken baby steps. Virgin’s much-ballyhood flight from London to Amsterdam used 5% coconut-oil biofuel (the part Sir Richard Branson didn’t drink for the photo-op) to show biofuel could take the high-altitude cold. But the test flight alone used 150,000 coconuts, Petroleum Review says--and at least 3 million would have been needed for a full biofuel flight. Multiply that by world air traffic, and the problem comes into focus.
The other options? Flavor-of-the-month jatropha biofuel would be fine--except aviation would require a land area twice the size of France to grow the stuff. What about natural gas-to-liquids technology? No food worries, but that would increase CO2 emissions by 50%. How about biomass, like bits of wood and useless plants? Well, they still need to grow somewhere--and commercial aviation would need to harvest an area three times the size of Germany.
Sir Branson suggested algae--something oil companies like Shell have started working on as a biofuel panacea. It might do the trick, Petroleum Review says, but don’t get your hopes up. Even harvesting oil from algae would require pond scum filling a space twice as big as Belgium.
As much as aviation needs to cut its fuel bill and emissions footprint, there are no easy answers in the short term. Get braced for more fuel surcharges at the airport.
The objection is not against ethanol per say but in the way it is made. Clearly, biofuels work, but they are not necessarily an alternative to oil. Any alternative to jet fuel needs to be energy dense, resist freezing temperatures, safe over a wide range of temperatures, environmentally clean (that's the whole point, right?), and be cheap and plentiful. It is also doubtful that the production of biofuels can be scaled the same as oil. Before we go gaga over running jet engines on coconuts or algae, we have to ask ourselves is it worth it? What will it cost us in terms of money, how much energy can be produced, and what will be the impact on the environment? These are the questions the media should be asking instead of acting as mindless stenographers for businesses.