If you’ve never heard of Hainan Airlines, chances are good that you’ll be hearing more about them from the media in the future. That’s because this China-based airline – the fourth largest in the country – has just completed its first intercontinental flight in a Boeing 787-8 (from China to the U.S.) using biofuel produced from used cooking oil from restaurants in China! The flight travelled an astonishing 11,000+ kilometers (6,835 miles) using sustainable biofuel.

First reported by Xinhua New Agency, the flight is a milestone for the airline, which was established in 1989 under the name “Hainan Province Airlines”. (They’ve previously flown domestic biofuel passenger flights using a Boeing 737-800. The first of these was launched in 2015.) This latest International biofuel flight was part of a green aviation project between China and the U.S.

What is Biofuel?

Biofuel is an energy source produced directly or indirectly from organic material, also known as biomass. It can include both solids and liquids. Biofuels are derived from several different sources including:

  • food plants
  • forestry products
  • agricultural products
  • fisheries
  • municipal waste products
  • food industry by-products and waste (like the used cooking oil used by Hainan Airlines)

There are two types of biofuels – primary and secondary. Primary biofuels are things like wood, wood chips and pellets, manure, etc. These are used in their original, unprocessed form. Secondary biofuels are what result from the processing of biomass. They include liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel, which can be used to power vehicles and machinery. (The biofuel used in Hainan Airlines’ domestic – and first intercontinental – flights is, therefore, a form of secondary biofuel.)

Bio-energy, which is energy produced using biofuels, is mainly used in homes (80%), to a much smaller extent in industry (18%) and are currently used very infrequently in their liquid form in transportation (2%).*

What are its Benefits?

Biofuel’s true benefits lie in the fact that it’s produced from sustainable (replaceable) sources, unlike traditional fossil fuels which are finite. It’s also easy to transport, just as most fossil fuels are today, which is one of the advantages it has over other forms of sustainable energy such as solar power, which is difficult to distribute.

How Biofuel is Produced

Liquid biofuels used in transportation are produced by separating two substances found within the cells of plants. One of these is lignin and the other is cellulose (made from sugar molecules). In order to convert the cellulose into glucose, which can then be fermented to produce alcohol, which in turn produces bio-energy, the lignin must be removed because it hampers or restricts the extraction of cellulose. Unfortunately, the current methods of accomplishing this feat are energy-consuming and not environmentally-friendly at this point.

The Future of Biofuel

The good news is that scientists and researchers from several different countries are working in collaboration with one another to solve the problem of extracting the cement-like lignin from plants to make accessing cellulose easier without expending lots of energy to do it. In recent years, these scientists have identified a new enzyme lignin biosynthetic pathway, which they’ve dubbed caffeoyl shikimate esterase, or CSE for short. They’ve discovered that by removing this enzyme, they can significantly reduce the amount of lignin in the plant material. What’s more, doing so alters the structure of the remaining lignin, making the cellulose extraction process less energy-intensive.

There are still problems though. Scientists know that traditional crops used to produce biofuels — such as corn, which produces ethanol – take a lot of space to grow, and impact food production as well. They’re currently studying different plant sources that can result in more biofuel from less space and without interrupting or

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