Search for a natural high

British Airways will experiment with food leftovers and household waste to make jet fuel, writes Nick Galvin.

If all goes to plan, by 2014 you could find yourself aboard a British Airways flight powered by lawn clippings, food leftovers and other waste. The airline has announced plans to set up what it claims is the first ''sustainable jet-fuel plant in Europe'' to power part of its fleet.

The plant, in east London, will take 500,000 tonnes of domestic and municipal waste each year and convert it into jet kerosene. ''Domestic waste is pretty good as it has got a high biomass content,'' says the airline's head of environment, Jonathon Counsell. ''Food waste is perfect.''

Initially, the waste is heated to very high temperatures to break it down into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, then those molecules are rebuilt into jet fuel using a chemical reaction know as the Fischer-Tropsch process.

''It is basically jet fuel,'' Counsell says. ''The only thing that is different is the source material. What we have made is exactly the same molecules as jet fuel so it performs in exactly the same way. What we have improved is the source - it has come from biomass as opposed to refining crude oil.''

The technology employed at the plant has been around for a long time, so Counsell is confident it will work. He says the main purpose behind the project is to learn about the economics of using waste to power planes.

This announcement from British Airways is the latest effort by the aviation industry to improve - or in some cases be seen to improve - its disastrous environmental performance.

Biofuel made from crops such as wheat or sugar cane has been touted as one solution but has come in for heavy criticism for diverting resources from the production of food crops.

British Airways claims its process gets around this by using feedstock waste that would otherwise have gone to landfill. There is the added benefit of not allowing the waste to rot and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Environmental critics argue the aviation industry's efforts with biofuels, which also include attempts to make fuel from algae, are largely intended merely to polish their green credentials. The main game, they say, should be reducing the number of flights and switching travellers to ''greener'' transport such as high-speed rail.

Greenpeace says it has ''serious concerns that faith in biofuels as a silver bullet for climate change is a dangerous distraction from rising emissions from the aviation industry''. British Airways' biomass plant will provide, at best, only 2 per cent of the airline's annual 302 million-litre fuel requirement. But Counsell argues the experience gained from running the relatively small plant will allow the airline to figure out how to scale up production in future.

In the end, Counsell says, airlines will never eliminate carbon emissions, which means airfares will inevitably rise as the price of carbon is factored into the cost of flying.

''We have to pay for our carbon emissions,'' Counsell says, ''and the customer will decide … based on what the new price of travel becomes, whether they want to fly or not.''