The Ergosphere
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

You just can't talk to some people

Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways kind of gets it, but he seems to be barking up the wrong tree.  Cellulosic ethanol isn't going to make good jet fuel (too heavy for the energy), and it probably will not be available in sufficient quantity to take the price pressure off petroleum.  In short, it won't keep jet travel economical.

I decided to share my thoughts with him via mail (I doubt he's one of my regular readers, so an open letter just wouldn't do) so I went to the Virgin Atlantic web site to get an address to write to.

Wouldn't you know, there are NO physical mail addresses on the site's contact page?  It's like they don't want anyone writing to them.

I guess you just can't talk to some people.

(NB:  Further digging yielded "The Office, Manor Royal, Crawley, West Sussex, RH10 9NU".  I may yet write.)

Wouldn't it be better to give passenger jets up as a mass transport option, given the damage they do to the atmosphere, and concentrate on using fast friendly sea ships instead? And trains for intra-continental transport?
How would I interest the head of an airline in any scheme which gets rid of passenger jets?
Tell him you know a way for him to make way more money than he already does. But lets face it, airlines aren't about easy profits, and the glamour is just as important for airline players as profitability is, so tell him you know a way to make people adore him an order of magnitude more than they do now.

And then stop him from contributing to the destruction of the atmosphere.
Large ships suffer from the same problem as trains do (at least here in New Zealand anyway). Inflexibility. They hold too many people and although you might be able to carry the same number of people from A to B on a given day, you'd do it with a lot less sailings than you'd need flights. This means businesses hoping to travel have to arrange their day around their travel schedule. This already happens badly enough - the last thing we need is to make it worse.

Plus, they'd need to make sea travel comfort a lot less weather-dependent and a LOT faster before anyone would consider it as an alternative to air travel.

Here in NZ, the ferrys that sail between our two islands are constantly being screamed at by environmentalists to slow down due to apparent coastal errosion. I guess you can never win.
I thought the cellulosic ethanol idea was closer to mark than his earlier build a refinery of his own idea was.

So he's getting better.

Maybe eventually the penny will drop an we'll see Virgin Solar and Virgin Wind Power launched (he already had Virgin Trains)...
It would be Branson. He's often accused of flakiness, but the record shows otherwise. He's also a lot less hidebound than the people who run BA (as conservative as Arrogant/sorry/American Airlines), and everyone I know who flies on his planes has nothing but good things to say.

More seriously, his lot were the first to buy the A340-600, the launch customer for the A380 (who knows - those things aren't built yet, maybe they'll be delivered with methane tank insulation?), and the first Mobile Virtual Network Operator on their telecoms side.

E-P, thinking of that, I'm sure I recently heard that Rolls Royce (who Virgin specify) were working on fuelcell-gas turbine integration. That sounds like SOLZINC to me. And if anyone can engineer it, Rolls can. After all, they invented the jet industry because they knew there were going to be a surplus of Merlin V12s at the end of WW2, and they knew they could do the development on Frank Whittle's engine that Rover couldn't.
Surpluses of Merlins weren't all that threatening when transport aircraft ran on radials.

FC/gas turbine doesn't sound at all like SOLZINC to me.  Solid-oxide or molten-carbonate fuel cells run at high enough temperatures to run a gas turbine as a bottoming cycle (at least until someone gets SOFC's working at 250° C!).  More to the point, this is something that isn't going to be light enough to run an aircraft.

On the other hand, zinc may be the key.  Ethanol is just a substitute for hydrocarbon fuel; it doesn't help unless it's available in a huge surplus, because nothing else will keep prices down.  But cars which run on zinc cannot even use liquid fuel.  On top of this, the carbon monoxide byproduct of the SOLZINC process can be fed to a Fischer-Tropsch process to make hydrocarbons.  Voila; motor fuel out one side, jet fuel out the other.

Zinc still looks like a miracle metal, doesn't it?
I don't for a moment think Rolls are developing it to put the fuel cell in the aircraft: one of their biggest businesses outside aero-engines and shipping is electricity generation.
One major issue:  jet liners do NOT burn gasoline (naptha), they burn jet-A (close to kerosene).

I'd believe that an old-style air-cooled piston engine with magneto ignition could improve efficiency with altitude if they ran on ethanol, especially in those regimes where the avgas-burning engine needs to run rich to compensate for poor cooling and insufficient spark advance.  Neither of these are a factor with modern piston engines or gas turbines.
Every aircraft listed on that site has a piston engine, not a turbine.  That's not going to make an airline take notice.
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