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February 16, 2009

Biofuels in Texas: Too Much Ain't Enough

Don't Mess
What Continental engineers
were drinking the morning of
the test flight. 

Photo: texasterritories.com

by Guy Martin

Texans like stuff big. It's apt, then, that the U.S.'s first-ever trial burn of plant-based fuel on a commercial airliner took place aboard Continental Airlines Boeing 737 flying out of Houston last month. Big-ass jet, big-ass engines, big-ass mix of jet fuel and . . . what was that, again? Algae? Jatropha? The mix for the two-engine jet was, according to Continental's spokesman, one engine on jet fuel (kerosene) and the other running a 50/50 mix of jet fuel and algae-jatropha juice. Engine didn't even need to be retrofitted, just ran like a wild bronc. Hot damn! Ro-day-oh!       

This epoch-defining eco-milestone should finally confirm for the 282 million non-Texans among us that the noble Lone Star State does in fact have it all:  killer barbecue, killer chili, killer beer, Flaco Jimenez and the Texas Playboys, the Alamo, that superhot al-Qaeda target living on that little ranch in Crawford, and not least, the jeans-with-rhinestone-appliqué-on-the-butt thing that has held mall rats around the globe in thrall for decades. How could any state in our beloved union possibly top that? 

Despite Continental's test flight, let's not, in the service of greenhouse analysis and proper historical context, forget that every man, woman, and child in Texas owns an average of six to ten trucks at any given moment.

Here's how that works: one in the shop, one for daily use, four to eight in reserve for various dress occasions. And, according to Texas law, dogs are legally allowed to drive pickups as long as the truck doesn't have a stick shift and the dog is registered as part of a crew on a working ranch.

The point is, Continental's innovative and most laudatory 'green' test flight fits squarely into the (alternative) history of trucks in Texas. Briefly, that history reads like this: country-western god Willie Nelson--himself heavily alternatively-fueled for most if not all of his adult life--got tired of driving his trucks with regular diesel, and was, characteristically, tired of the his home state's oil-dependent culture. In 2005, Willie kicked it up a notch with BioWillie diesel, a soybean-based product that got bunches of ordinary Texans laughing, but also got bunches of Willie's trucks down the road. It's one of the enduring ironies of energy history that the state that spawned wildcatting for oil in the early 20th century spawned, first, Willie Nelson, and second, Continental Airlines' awesome midair algae burn.

So, for our beloved techies, what's the tech? In a word, splendid. Jatropha, a scrub plant that is sustainable and whose harvesting won't deplete food crops, is unstoppably green, according to Continental. The airline's pilots put the aircraft through some normal (and some abnormal) maneuvers during the 90-minute flight out of George Bush International in Houston. To measure performance, Continental engineers left one engine on kerosene (the placebo, if you will) and fired the other up with the mix. Presto! The algae-jatropha engine delivered a bit more thrust for the money, according to the test results.

Green waves are being made all over the airline industry: The International Air Transport Association (IATA) hopes its members will run on at least 10 percent alternative fuels by 2017 and the extremely alternative Virgin Airways Chair, music mogul, and professional English public school bad boy Richard Branson ran a Virgin jet on alternative fuel last year. In other words, what we're tracking is a fuel mix in the larger cultural/business sense. It's a strange stew pot in which post-post-post-1960s music counterculture and eco-mindedness merges with big commerce to find common ground. In that territory, only those willing to think past traditional locomotion--Branson, Nelson, and, now, some executives at Continental--have what the Texans would call the cojones to advance the anti-CO2 race. So as long as they're handing out Nobels to Al Gore, why not give one to Willie? 

Further reading:
* Don't Mess with (Green) Texas: Since the Don't Mess with Texas campaign began in 1986, hundreds of tons of trash have been removed from Texas roadways
* Gear, Tech, Etc.: Travel meets technology

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