Brazil's Biofuel Plane Fleet Grows

Some 200 single-engine planes are now burning cheap ethanol made from sugarcane for their crop-dusting and public health missions.

Brazilian biofuel, already available for nine out of 10 cars on the roads, is also keeping a small but growing fleet of aircraft aloft, the company making them says. Some 200 single-engine, single-seat Ipanema planes made by Neiva, a subsidiary of Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer, are now burning cheap ethanol made from sugarcane for their crop-dusting and public health missions.

The first of the ethanol-fueled EMB 202As took to the air in 2005, and the company has steadily increased production, with 32 being turned out this year, the head of the factory in the central west town of Botucatu, Almir Borges, said. Next year, production should stabilize at 36 planes per year, he said.

The biofuel version of the plane is swelling sales of the aircraft, already the market leader in the agricultural aviation segment with a 75% dominance. Around 1,000 of the traditional, petroleum-based version have been sold over the past three decades.

The biofuel technology is only being used for the propeller-driven planes, and within heavy restrictions for light aircraft, Borges explained, adding that ethanol was not being used in Embraer's range of jets. But even taking account of that, the prospects for growing the number of ethanol aircraft in Brazil is huge.

The vast South American nation is home to the second-biggest fleet of light aircraft in the world, after the U.S., with 14,000 planes. Around 12,000 of those could be adapted to use biofuel.

Brazil's Aerospace Technical Center estimates that another 400 light aircraft are flying on ethanol in the country, but without the government certification given the Ipanema planes, creating potential safety concerns.

Embraer's studies suggest that having just 600 Ipanemas running on sugarcane ethanol will reduce the demand for traditional petroleum-based jet fuel by 16.8 million liters (4.4 million gallons) per year and save $13.5 million in running costs.

AvAlc, or Aviation Alcohol, as Neiva calls its brand of ethanol for aircraft, costs just 30% of what AvGas (aviation gasoline) does.

Brazil is the second-biggest producer of ethanol in the world (again, after the United States), generating 18 billion liters last year, of which around 17% was exported.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2008

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