The United States and China launched a research venture Wednesday to develop biofuels for use by Chinese airlines based on algae or oily nuts and said an inaugural flight could come as early as this year.
The announcement of a series of research partnerships follows a pledge this week by the governments at a high-level meeting to cooperate closely in renewable energy, which both said was essential to fight climate change and could spur new industries.
"Renewable energy development is central to our cooperation with China," David Sandalow, a U.S. assistant secretary of energy, said at a conference on renewable fuel.
The two sides signed a series of research partnerships between Boeing Co., U.S. government agencies and Chinese research institutions and state companies including Air China Ltd. and PetroChina Ltd.
The first flight in China using biofuels could happen this year, and the fuel could be in use in commercial aviation in three to five years, said Al Bryant, Boeing's vice president for research and technology in China. He said four test flights using biofuels have been flown successfully in the United States.
"Today we've proven it can be flown," Bryant said. "It's a matter of scaling it up so it can be commercialized."
China is on track to become the world's largest aviation market in coming decades and Beijing is aggressively promoting alternative fuels to clean up its environment and curb growing reliance on imported oil and gas.
Chinese companies have yet to decide which plants to use as a fuel source, but researchers are looking at algae and jatropha, a tree grown in south China that produces an oily nut, Bryant said.
As to why the initiative was taking place in China rather than the United States, Bryant said "they've made the decision to move faster."
Bryant said the goal of the research is to produce a fuel that can be used in commercial airliners with no modifications to standard engines. He said it would be a mix of biofuel and standard jet fuel.
Also this week, the U.S. government promised to help develop China's resources of shale gas as a clean-burning energy source.