Green virgins in outer space

From São Paulo to Shanghai, mass air travel is booming. But what about a pleasure ride to the edge o

Would you set foot inside a space shuttle fuelled by laughing gas? Or run your car on corn stalks? And would you invest in a company that pioneered both? Virgin Group's entrepreneurial zeal is looking rather green of late - though in these days of $75-a-barrel oil, it might be the greenish tinge of money.

Virgin has announced its intention to crack the fuel market through the commercial production of ethanol, a biofuel derived from fermenting corn, sugar and other crops. Bio-fuels (nine-tenths of them ethanol) account for only 1 per cent of the world's total energy consumption. This may be about to change. Global production of ethanol has doubled since 2000, while oil production has increased by a mere 7 per cent in the same period.

So can Virgin do for the unglamorous world of biofuels what it did for the aviation industry, the record business and mobile phones? The first Virgin ethanol plant will open in the United States in the next 18 months. A second will produce cellulosic ethanol - fuel made out of organic waste, including sewage and paper. A third is being considered for the UK.

Lacking super-sized cornfields, vast sugar plantations, or indeed any crop that requires plenty of dry, sunny weather, Britain doesn't seem a natural market for biofuels. Not so, according to Virgin's Will Whitehorn. He says that almost every car in the UK could use fuel that was up to 15 per cent ethanol in their engines, without modification. Ethanol could be added at the pump and "customers wouldn't know the difference", yet "15 per cent less of their energy source would be coming out of the ground". The only thing standing in their way, according to Whitehorn, is the prohibition of biofuel blends in private vehicles.

Virgin's four airlines consume more than 2.6 billion litres of standard jet fuel every year; naturally, the Group thinks the government should "urgently address" the possibility of a biofuel mix for commercial flights. At present, the aviation industry generates almost as much carbon dioxide every year as all human activities in Africa. However, Virgin's public commitment to the environment is only part of the story: ethanol, unlike oil, is relatively cheap to produce, and is not subject to the whims of Russia or Opec.

In November 2005, Richard Branson told reporters that he hoped "some or all" of Virgin's jet fuel would be replaced with ethanol "over the next five to six years". To date the European Aviation Safety Agency has not received any requests to certify the technology that would allow for a biofuel blend on commercial flights, and aircraft coming on-stream now have lifespans of up to 50 years. Even if the technology were widely available, regulatory authorities would have to be satisfied that the characteristics which make pure ethanol an unsatisfactory choice for jet engines - its propensity to thicken at low temperatures, its low flashpoint, its low energy density and its release of dangerous gases at low power settings - are adequately addressed.

It seems that even Branson's enthusiasm for the fuel has been tempered: in January 2006 he told Fortune magazine that he was not sure if ethanol "will ever do it" for jet aeroplanes. However, habitual confidence undimmed, he went on to predict that if we could run all land-based transport on cellulosic ethanol and leave aeroplanes to burn petroleum-based fuel, "issues like global warming will be fixed".

Perhaps. What can be certain is that Virgin's space tourism enterprise, Virgin Galactic, will far outstrip the green cre-dentials of its airline business in the years to come. The VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Enterprise, due to be fully operational in 2008, will blast space tourists from a base in New Mexico on a suborbital flight (about 100 kilometres above the earth) for $200,000 a pop.

The two-and-a-half-hour trip will be launched by turbofans and fuelled by nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and rubber. Nitrous oxide acts as an oxidant, making a burning solid fuel - in this case rubber - produce much more energy than if it was burned in ordinary air, while releasing virtually no CO2. The average Nasa shuttle launch using traditional rocket fuel comes at an environmental cost of 726,000 kilos of CO2 released into the lower atmosphere, which is roughly what New York City exhales in a week. Virgin claims its rocket will release a mere 450 kilos per trip - less than a third of the CO2 generated per passenger on a return flight between New York and London.

Whitehorn attributes the green turn in Virgin's expansion to "a lot of history". Or, more precisely, Branson's realisation eight years ago that oil prices were set to rise considerably. Since then, Virgin has consistently invested in energy- efficient future technologies, he says. Its investment in energy-efficient trains in 1999, when fuel prices were at an all-time low, was widely regarded as an unnecessary expense. Seven years later the Virgin fleet has the lowest fuel costs in the country. Who's laughing now? It could be the nitrous oxide, but my bet is on the bottom line.

Read more from the New Statesman 'Heat and Light' energy supplement at

www.newstatesman.com/supplements/energy

This article first appeared in The worst man in the world?

2006-05-15