February 2009

Have American teenagers gone wild?


Parents have worried for generations about changing moral values and risky behavior among young people, and the latest news seems particularly worrisome.

It came from the National Center for Health Statistics, which reported this month that births to 15- to 19-year-olds had risen for the first time in more than a decade.

And that is not the only alarm being sounded. The talk show host Tyra Banks declared a teen sex crisis last fall after her show surveyed girls about sexual behavior. A few years ago, Oprah Winfrey warned parents of a teenage oral-sex epidemic.

The news is troubling, but it’s also misleading. While some young people are clearly engaging in risky sexual behavior, a vast majority are not. The reality is that in many ways, today’s teenagers are more conservative about sex than previous generations.

Today, fewer than half of all high school students have had sex: 47.8 percent as of 2007, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, down from 54.1 percent in 1991.
A less recent report suggests that teenagers are also waiting longer to have sex than they did in the past. A 2002 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls had experienced sex, down from 38 percent in 1995. During the same period, the percentage of sexually experienced boys in that age group dropped to 31 percent from 43 percent.

The rates also went down among younger teenagers. In 1995, about 20 percent said they had had sex before age 15, but by 2002 those numbers had dropped to 13 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys.

“There’s no doubt that the public perception is that things are getting worse, and that kids are having sex younger and are much wilder than they ever were,” said Kathleen A. Bogle, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at La Salle University. “But when you look at the data, that’s not the case.”

One reason people misconstrue teenage sexual behavior is that the system of dating and relationships has changed significantly. In the first half of the 20th century, dating was planned and structured — and a date might or might not lead to a physical relationship. In recent decades, that pattern has largely been replaced by casual gatherings of teenagers.
In that setting, teenagers often say they “fool around,” and in a reversal of the old pattern, such an encounter may or may not lead to regular dating. The shift began around the late 1960s, said Dr. Bogle, who explored the trend in her book “Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus” (N.Y.U. Press, 2008).

The latest rise in teenage pregnancy rates is cause for concern. But it very likely reflects changing patterns in contraceptive use rather than a major change in sexual behavior. The reality is that the rate of teenage childbearing has fallen steeply since the late 1950s. The declines aren’t explained by the increasing availability of abortions: teenage abortion rates have also dropped.

“There is a group of kids who engage in sexual behavior, but it’s not really significantly different than previous generations,” said Maria Kefalas, an associate professor of sociology at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and co-author of “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage” (University of California Press, 2005). “This creeping up of teen pregnancy is not because so many more kids are having sex, but most likely because more kids aren’t using contraception.”

As for that supposed epidemic of oral sex, especially among younger teenagers: national statistics on the behavior have only recently been collected, and they are not as alarming as some reports would have you believe. About 16 percent of teenagers say they have had oral sex but haven’t yet had intercourse. Researchers say children’s more relaxed attitude about oral sex probably reflects a similar change among adults since the 1950s. In addition, some teenagers may view oral sex as “safer,” since unplanned pregnancy is not an issue.

Health researchers say parents who fret about teenage sex often fail to focus on the important lessons they can learn from the kids who aren’t having sex. Teenagers with more parental supervision, who come from two-parent households and who are doing well in school are more likely to delay sex until their late teens or beyond.

“For teens, sex requires time and lack of supervision,” Dr. Kefalas said. “What’s really important for us to pay attention to, as researchers and as parents, are the characteristics of the kids who become pregnant and those who get sexually transmitted diseases.

“This whole moral panic thing misses the point, because research suggests kids who don’t use contraception tend to be kids who are feeling lost and disconnected and not doing well.”

Although the data is clear, health researchers say it is often hard to convince adults that most teenagers have healthy attitudes about sex.

“I give presentations nationwide where I’m showing people that the virginity rate in college is higher than you think and the number of partners is lower than you think and hooking up more often than not does not mean intercourse,” Dr. Bogle said. “But so many people think we’re morally in trouble, in a downward spiral and teens are out of control. It’s very difficult to convince people otherwise.”

* By TARA PARKER-POPE (January 27, 2009,”The Myth of Rampant Teenage Promiscuity”)

In trying to figure out how we can defeat sex trafficking, a starting point is to think like a brothel owner.
My guide to that has been Sok Khorn, an amiable middle-aged woman who is a longtime brothel owner here in the wild Cambodian town of Poipet. I met her five years ago when she sold me a teenager, Srey Mom, for $203 and then blithely wrote me a receipt confirming that the girl was now my property. At another brothel nearby, I purchased another imprisoned teenager for $150.


Astonished that in the 21st century I had bought two human beings, I took them back to their villages and worked with a local aid group to help them start small businesses. I’ve remained close to them over the years, but the results were mixed.
The second girl did wonderfully, learning hairdressing and marrying a terrific man. But Srey Mom, it turned out, was addicted to methamphetamine and fled back to the brothel world to feed her craving.
I just returned again to Ms. Khorn’s brothel to interview her, and found something remarkable. It had gone broke and closed, like many of the brothels in Poipet. One lesson is that the business model is more vulnerable than it looks. There are ways we can make enslaving girls more risky and less profitable, so that traffickers give up in disgust.
For years, Ms. Khorn had been grumbling to me about the brothel — the low margins, the seven-day schedule, difficult customers, grasping policemen and scorn from the community. There was also a personal toll, for her husband had sex with the girls, infuriating her, and the couple eventually divorced bitterly. Ms. Khorn was also troubled that her youngest daughter, now 13, was growing up surrounded by drunken, leering men.
Then in the last year, the brothel business became even more challenging amid rising pressure from aid groups, journalists and the United States State Department’s trafficking office. The office issued reports shaming Cambodian leaders and threatened sanctions if they did nothing.


Many of the brothels are owned by the police, which complicates matters, but eventually authorities in Cambodia were pressured enough that they ordered a partial crackdown.
“They didn’t tell me to close down exactly,” said another Poipet brothel owner whom I’ve also interviewed periodically. “But they said I should keep the front door closed.”
About half the brothels in Poipet seem to have gone out of business in the last couple of years. After Ms. Khorn’s brothel closed, her daughter-in-law took four of the prostitutes to staff a new brothel, but it’s doing poorly and she is thinking of starting a rice shop instead. “A store would be more profitable,” grumbled the daughter-in-law, Sav Channa.
“The police come almost every day, asking for $5,” she said. “Any time a policeman gets drunk, he comes and asks for money. … Sometimes I just close up and pretend that this isn’t a brothel. I say that we’re all sisters.”
Ms. Channa, who does not seem to be imprisoning anyone against her will, readily acknowledged that some other brothels in Poipet torture girls, enslave them and occasionally beat them to death. She complained that their cruelty gives them a competitive advantage.
But brutality has its own drawbacks as a business model, particularly during a crackdown, pimps say. Brothels that imprison and torture girls have to pay for 24-hour guards, and they lose business because they can’t allow customers to take girls out to hotel rooms. Moreover, the Cambodian government has begun prosecuting the most abusive traffickers.
“One brothel owner here was actually arrested,” complained another owner in Poipet, indignantly. “After that, I was so scared, I closed the brothel for a while.”
To be sure, a new brothel district has opened up on the edge of Poipet — in the guise of “karaoke lounges” employing teenage girls. One of the Mama-sans there offered that while she didn’t have a young virgin girl in stock, she could get me one.
Virgin sales are the profit center for many brothels in Asia (partly because they stitch girls up and resell them as virgins several times over), and thus these sales are their economic vulnerability as well. If we want to undermine sex trafficking, the best way is to pressure governments like Cambodia’s to organize sting operations and arrest both buyers and sellers of virgin girls. Cambodia has shown it is willing to take at least some action, and that is one that would strike at the heart of the business model.
Sexual slavery is like any other business: raise the operating costs, create a risk of jail, and the human traffickers will quite sensibly shift to some other trade. If the Obama administration treats 21st-century slavery as a top priority, we can push many of the traffickers to quit in disgust and switch to stealing motorcycles instead.

* By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF (NYT, January 11, 2009)








NEARLY everything you’ve been led to believe about Gaza is wrong. Below are a few essential points that seem to be missing from the conversation, much of which has taken place in the press, about Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip.


THE GAZANS Most of the people living in Gaza are not there by choice. The majority of the 1.5 million people crammed into the roughly 140 square miles of the Gaza Strip belong to families that came from towns and villages outside Gaza like Ashkelon and Beersheba. They were driven to Gaza by the Israeli Army in 1948.
THE OCCUPATION The Gazans have lived under Israeli occupation since the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel is still widely considered to be an occupying power, even though it removed its troops and settlers from the strip in 2005. Israel still controls access to the area, imports and exports, and the movement of people in and out. Israel has control over Gaza’s air space and sea coast, and its forces enter the area at will. As the occupying power, Israel has the responsibility under the Fourth Geneva Convention to see to the welfare of the civilian population of the Gaza Strip.
THE BLOCKADE Israel’s blockade of the strip, with the support of the United States and the European Union, has grown increasingly stringent since Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006. Fuel, electricity, imports, exports and the movement of people in and out of the Strip have been slowly choked off, leading to life-threatening problems of sanitation, health, water supply and transportation.
The blockade has subjected many to unemployment, penury and malnutrition. This amounts to the collective punishment — with the tacit support of the United States — of a civilian population for exercising its democratic rights.
THE CEASE-FIRE Lifting the blockade, along with a cessation of rocket fire, was one of the key terms of the June cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. This accord led to a reduction in rockets fired from Gaza from hundreds in May and June to a total of less than 20 in the subsequent four months (according to Israeli government figures). The cease-fire broke down when Israeli forces launched major air and ground attacks in early November; six Hamas operatives were reported killed.
WAR CRIMES The targeting of civilians, whether by Hamas or by Israel, is potentially a war crime. Every human life is precious. But the numbers speak for themselves: Nearly 700 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed since the conflict broke out at the end of last year. In contrast, there have been around a dozen Israelis killed, many of them soldiers. Negotiation is a much more effective way to deal with rockets and other forms of violence. This might have been able to happen had Israel fulfilled the terms of the June cease-fire and lifted its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
This war on the people of Gaza isn’t really about rockets. Nor is it about “restoring Israel’s deterrence,” as the Israeli press might have you believe.
Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Arab studies at Columbia, is the author of the forthcoming “Sowing Crisis: The Cold War and American Dominance in the Middle East.”

* By RASHID KHALIDI (NYT,January 8, 2009)


The Gaza Boomerang
readers’ comments for New York Times, January 08, 2009
What we’re seeing in the Middle East is the Boomerang Syndrome. Extremists on each side sustain the other, and the Israeli assault in Gaza is likely to create more terrorists in the long run.

Israel continually forgets the most important lesson of their own history – and that of other conflicts:
Violence begets violence.

Each child bombed out of their own pitiful refugee home has a burning need for revenge. Each child who watches his parents and siblings being carried out of rubble in bits and pieces swears to spend their lives seeking revenge.

The Palestinians are a people Israel keeps trying to conquer, they are a people who Israel consistently views as an irritant who dare to want to keep their homeland.

No people can be expected to meekly step aside as their lands, homes, employment and families are taken from them. 99.99% of us would fight off invaders. That’s human nature. Why does Israel always expect the Palestinians not to fight for the return of their lives and homes?
— Katy, NYC

Your argument is marred by the implicit suggestion that 20 Israeli deaths do not justify a much larger number of Palestinian deaths. The unwritten but implied word missing from your text is the qualifier “only” to describe those 20 Israeli deaths. Go tell the families of those slain Israelis that their loved ones were one of “only” 20 Israeli deaths. Go and tell the children living in a zone that has been constantly under missile attack for the past 8 years that their fears are less real than the fears of Gaza children. I have heard countless stories of children in Sderot who will not leave their parents’ side even at age 15, or of bedwetting by children long out of diapers.

Let’s not forget that for all the tragedy of war, one side of this argument did what the other side wanted: Israel withdrew from Gaza. All Israel wanted in return was quiet, but it never got that. It got hatred and violence in return. So while we can argue what should have been the appropriate response by Israel (and personally I agree that Israel’s response was not well thought out on many levels), we can not lose sight of the fact that but for the Hamas stance towards Israel, Palestinians in Gaza would not be burying their dead today.

If Scarsdale were under daily missile threat from White Plains, and “only” 20 Scarsdale residents had been killed by those attacks, would your opinion still hold?
— JK, Haifa, Israel


During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States established a blockade around Cuba. The intent was to prevent Russian missiles from getting to Cuba. America had very good reasons to dislike having nuclear armed weapons just minutes away from our population centers.

But suppose the United States had extended the blockade to prevent any food, medicine, electricity or fuel from entering Cuba. Suppose we controlled and limited any humanitarian aid that could get in. Imagine that no Cuban sugar or cigars were allowed to be exported and no equipment or supplies were allowed to be imported. Then imagine the blockade was also extended to prevent any people from entering or leaving Cuba without U.S. government approval. Finally, imagine that the United States government refused to allow any international observers to enter Cuba to report first hand on what might have been perpetrated on the Cuban people.

Now, do you think that after 45 years of this blockade, the Cuban people wouldn’t be justified in doing whatever they could to fight this oppression? If they could build a rocket that could reach Miami, do you think they wouldn’t use it? Do you really think such actions would be totally unjustified?

Many people thought that Cuba was a rogue state. Do you think the United States would have been justified in treating Cuba in the same way that Israel has been treating the Palestinians? The Israelis have been keeping up these pressures on the Palestinians for sixty years. A change is needed, but it is the Israelis who need to change.
— Steve, Japan

Any sympathy for Israel has now disappeared completely.
— Keith Tunstall, UK

I recently retired from the US Marine Corps, but I saw service in Iraq. I do know something of military matters that are relevant to the situation now in Gaza.

I am dismayed by the rhetoric from US politicians and pundits to the effect that “if the US were under rocket attack from Mexico or Canada, we would respond like the Israelis”. This a gross insult to US servicemen; I can assure you that we would NOT respond like the Israelis. In fact, US armed forces and adjunct civilians are under attack constantly in Iraq and Afghanistan by people who are much better armed, much better trained and far deadlier than Hamas (I’ll ignore for now that the politicians seem to be oblivious to this fact). Israel has indeed taken a small number of casualties from Hamas rocket fire (about 20 killed since 2001), but we have taken thousands of casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, including many civilian personnel. Hundreds of American casualties have occurred due to indirect fire, often from mortars. This is particularly true in or near the Green Zone in Baghdad. This fire often originates from densely populated urban areas.

Americans do not, I repeat DO NOT, respond to that fire indiscriminately. When I say “indiscriminately”, I mean that even if we can precisely identify the source of the fire (which can be very difficult), we do not respond if we know we will cause civilian casualties. We always evaluate the threat to civilians before responding, and in an urban area the threat to civilians is extremely high. If US servicemen violate those rules of engagement and harm civilians, I assure you we do our best to investigate — and mete out punishment if warranted. There are differing opinions on the conflict in Iraq, but I am proud of the conduct of our servicemen there.

With that in mind, I find the conduct of the Israeli army in Gaza to be brutal and dishonorable, and it is insulting that they and others claim that the US military would behave in the same way. I know the Israelis are operating under difficult circumstances, but their claim that they follow similar rules of engagement rings hollow; I see little evidence for this claim given the huge number of civilian casualties they have caused from indirect fire.

In particular, I am stunned at the Israeli explanation for the 30+ civilians killed at the UN school. The Israelis say they were responding to mortar fire from the school. Mortars are insidious because their high trajectory and lack of primary flash make it very difficult to trace the source of the fire; you have to have a spotter locate the crew. The Israelis claim that they traced the source of the fire precisely to the school; if so, they must have directly spotted the crew. Thus it is inconceivable that the Israelis did not know that the target was a crowded UN school, yet they chose to fire on the school anyhow. I say without hesitation that this is a criminal act. If the Israelis had said, “sorry, it was an accident”, that could indicate a targeting problem, confusion, or inferior training. But to openly admit that they responded reflexively to the Hamas fire without consideration for the inevitable civilian casualties is beyond the pale. The Israelis blame Hamas for firing from the school (although UN personnel on the ground dispute this), but choosing to fire directly at civilians is far worse; it is tantamount to murder. US servicemen do not behave that way in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we face much deadlier adversaries (Hamas mortar crews are apparently not very effective: I believe that all but one of the total Israeli combat fatalities have been from friendly fire). In the rare and unfortunate cases where US personnel have willingly targeted civilians, they have been court-martialed and punished.

The Israeli approach in Gaza strikes me as uncontrolled and vengeful. My objective analysis is that it has little tactical effectiveness; my opinion is that its main goal is to whip the entire Gaza population into submission. This is disturbingly similar to the Israelis’ conduct in Lebanon in 2006, so I feel obliged to say that the Israeli military displays a concerted pattern of disregard for civilian lives. I am not a politician, but in my opinion the US should take some sort of political action in this regard. If we continue to formally condone Israel’s dishonorable and brutal military conduct in Gaza, I fear there will eventually be dire consequences for our country.
— JDS, North Carolina


There is no more obnoxious concept flittered about than “proportionate response”. This is a concept that is only applied in one area in the international community, and that is towards Israel. Give me one other example of a country being dictated too what their response to bombs being lobbed over their border, in an attempt to kill and terrorize their citizens. The correct proportionate response to these actions is to kill anyone who is doing this, and kill anyone who possibly will be doing this in the future. If that proportionate response is successful, well then we don’t have to worry about citizens being terrorized or threatened in the future. What do you think I am missing here?
— Jeff Marbach, Boynton Beach, Fla.

I didn’t see the words “immediate cease fire” that I was looking for.

The Gaza Mr. Kristof visited is far different today. Here’s a reporter’s story from inside Gaza City:
AP Gaza reporter finds hometown in rubble:
“My brother took a picture of the room where my boys, 2-year-old Hikmet and 6-month-old Ahmed, once slept. Their toys were broken, shrapnel had punched through the closet and the bedroom wall had collapsed. I don’t know if we will ever go back.

There are other pictures that haunt me. The Israeli army issued a video of the bombing of the Hamas-run government compound, which it posted on YouTube. In it, I also can see my home being destroyed, and I watch it obsessively.”

Stop worrying so much about Israel and start thinking about the humanitarian crisis and the destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure, utilities, farm land (tanks rolling over farm land makes me cringe).

Gazans are being crushed while American tv media is gushing over trivia.
— Agathena, Victoria BC Canada


I take exception to your statement that Israel was provoked. It is the Gazan who live in an open air prison and have been blockaded from air land and sea ever since they exercised their democratic rights and voted in a government led by Hamas. Let’s call a spade a spade.
— Arif, Karachi Pakistan


What a maddeningly simplistic analysis of the conflict! Mr. Kristof could just as well point out that U.S. support for Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion “boomeranged” into al-Qaeda and that therefore the U.S. is itself responsible for 9/11. Maybe this would be true in a world of no rights and no wrongs but that is certainly not Mr. Kristof’s usual, and usually highly effective, worldview. I read two proposals in the essay – first, to “ease the siege in Gaza”, and secondly that Mr. Obama should “need[s] to join European leaders in calling for a new cease-fire on all sides”. The first would guarantee that Hamas would quintuple its import of arms and ammunition. The second would do no better than the first cease-fire, during which Hamas spent all its resources on armaments and none of its resources on schools, jobs, farms, greenhouses, or any aspects of civil society. Surely Mr. Kristof and the “European leaders” realize that whatever arrangements are made must guarantee no more rocket fire from Gaza and no more armaments into Gaza, or this entire nasty episode will just flare up again in the next few weeks, months, or years. That would truly be a boomerang. Believe me, sitting within rocket range in Be’er Sheva, this is not something I’m going to vote for.
— Mark Keil, Be’er Sheva, Israel


Israel can (and probably will) win a tactical military victory in Gaza. The relative calm that ensues will come with a terrible price – the certain loss of any moral position by Israel.

Yes, it is unacceptable for Israel to become the morally pure martyr of the world. It has a right of self defense. But proportionality in response is not just the rule of 21st century international law, but it is also biblical (assuming that we are not talking of the wars of the conquest of Canaan, where extermination was the principle).

Apart for morality,as a matter of cold calculation it is easy to see that for every dead Hamas terrorist, the “collateral damage” recruits at least ten more. Tactical victory, probably. Strategic miscalculation, certainly.
— John G., NYC


Your analysis brings up some good points but has many holes. Yes, Extremes do not make peace as our friends at Daniel Pearl’s Foundation always remind us. Just look at what Israelis have done to Jerusalem, a previously magical place, now overrun and destroyed by a bunch of extreme Jews who need army protection for their provocations. At the same time the city is yearned by many extreme Hamas type Palestinians. It is another time bomb in this mess in the Middle East.
Speaking of Hamas, it’s Iran feeding tube is all Hate and that is what no military action by Israel can undo. No other regime has been more successful in constant manufacturing and systematic dissemination of Hate to the world since the Nazi’s.
Iran’s 30 year Islamic disaster also shows that extreme Islamist regimes, grow immediate and strong roots and turn themselves into mob supported movements, exactly like the Hamas’ mosque building model.
Palestinians have lost many chances over the years due to corrupt and criminal leaders to make Peace, dismantle their awful refugee camps, bring home their Best from Diaspora to rebuild and not elect and succumb to such Hate mongers like Hamas. But is too late now. Too much blood has been shed.
I differ with you on Mahmood Abbas. He is a joke with no charisma, power or agenda. A stupid nobody who looks and acts like a puppet of the events as they unfold. Of course Israel and the US have used him for many photo ups over the years, but made a huge mistake by not strengthening him when pulling out of Gaza in ’05 and creating a vacuum filled by Hamas.
I agree with Kelvinco of Boulder, that starvation, humiliation, and invasion of the Nation next door is not the best recipe for eventual peaceful coexistence, Again because systematic Hate mongering by the rulers, hardens all and Extremes boomerang. Israelis have no one to replace Hamas with in Gaza.
But it is too late for Peace as we like to see it. Because long term damage have been done by both sides to the spirit of Peace.
Sorry I have to remain a realist.
— Samir Albert Mano, Tehran, Iran


You claim that strengthening the Fateh government is “crucial,” but you also state that many Palestinians see that party as corrupt. What will it look like to the Palestinians if we try to prop up what they see as a corrupt government? They will see that yet again, the US is trying to establish a puppet government in a foreign country.

We will have to talk to the Islamists. They were democratically elected. The US cannot simply ignore the widespread popularity of Islamic political parties and movements, if we want to be diplomatically effective.
— anneret, New York City


In this war, every civilian casualty is another ugly red stain on the flag of Hamas.

The Israeli armed forces is almost certainly the most humane military in the world, warning the Palestinian civilians—their presumed enemy—through phone calls, through leaflets, with the indefinite threat that Hamas operatives, who work to kill Israeli civilians in the same building where Palestinian civilians sleep, eat, live, would be warned too.

And yet they still continue firing rockets into Israel—from apartment buildings, from mosques, from schools. They send Palestinian children to the top of Hamas-inhabited apartment buildings so that Israeli aircrafts would steer clear of killing noncombatants. They set off their missiles from places like the U.N. school, where dozens of congregating Palestinian civilians have been slain.

Blaming Israel for this massacre is preposterous. We need to isolate Hamas and pose them with two choices: a) Stop with the rockets, and we’ll have a ceasefire—or b) We’re going to teach you a lesson, and until you learn it we’re not going to stop.
— Gadi Cohen, Long Island

The U.S.’s first commercial jet flight powered by biofuel runs one engine on African weed mixed with a smidgen of algae

Continental jet 516—a two-engine Boeing 737-800—completed a two hour test flight out of Houston today with one engine powered by a 50-50 blend of regular petroleum-based jet fuel and a synthetic alternative made from Jatropha and algae.


“The properties of the fuel are fabulous, in fact, the bio part of the blend has a lower freeze point than Jet A,” says Billy Glover, managing director of environmental strategy at Boeing, which is helping organize similar test flights throughout the world. “The fuels we’re testing now have equal or better energy content than the Jet A requirements,” of at least 48 megajoules per kilogram (20,700 British thermal units per pound).

In fact, the alternative jet fuel—known as synthetic paraffinated kerosenes—has as good or better qualities than Jet A refined from petroleum: It does not freeze at high-altitude temperatures, delivers the same or more power to the engines, and is lighter, as well. And the refiners, UOP, LLC, a division of Honeywell, can turn almost any plant oil into the alternative jet fuel. “They’re all the same as far as we’re concerned. We’re feedstock agnostic,” says chemist Jennifer Holmgren, UOP’s general manager of the renewable energy and chemicals business.. “If the feedstock is available, we can process it to make fuels of the same capability.”

For this flight, UOP transformed gallons of oil derived from the seeds of the Jatropha plant—an African weedy shrub that can be grown on land that is not being used for food production—provided by Terasol Energy. The Jatropha oil made up the bulk of the biofuel but 2.5 percent of the blend was also derived from 600 gallons (2,270 liters) of algae oil procured by Sapphire Energy from Cyanotech, an algae grower in Hawaii—the first time such algae oil has been used for flight.

“Crude oil is nothing but algae from 10 million years ago during a great algae bloom that got transported underground and today we call it crude oil,” says Tim Zenk, vice president of corporate affairs at Sapphire Energy. “We take that process and speed it up by 10 million years and produce green crude.”

Of course, making algae oil in any quantity remains a huge challenge, from perfecting the growth of the organism and its oil production to extracting the product in a cost-effective manner. Zenk says the company hopes to produce 300 barrels of oil from algae grown in brackish ponds at its test facility in Las Cruces, N.M., by 2011 and 10,000 barrels a day in five years. It will cost “between $60 to $80 per barrel,” he says. “That’s with very conservative numbers in terms of oil produced per acre.” Companies ranging from Science Applications International (SAIC) in San Diego to San Francisco-based start-up Solazyme are working to produce jet fuel from algae oil as well.

In the meantime, efforts to grow Jatropha—already planted in quantity in Africa and India—may be scaled up, whereas other feedstocks that can be rotated with wheat, such as Camelina—a relative of canola—will play a role. “The way to think about it is that Camelina and Jatropha will be at the correct price point—$80 per barrel or less—within three to five years and algae in eight to 10 years,” UOP’s Holmgren says.

The next test flight—a Japan Airlines flight scheduled for January 30—will employ a jet biofuel made from Camelina supplied by Bozeman, Mt.-based Sustainable Oils, a joint venture of Seattle biotech company Targeted Growth and Green Earth Fuels in Houston. “It’s a nonfood primary crop, can be grown on land that isn’t being used, but it fits with existing farm infrastructure,” says CEO Tom Todaro of Targeted Growth. “If you’re expecting to have hundreds of millions of gallons of jet fuel in the next five years produced from a plant feedstock, it’s almost certainly going to be Camelina.”

That’s because it can be grown on wheat fields that would otherwise be left fallow without harming the soil and in some cases improving it. “You give farmers an opportunity to make money in a year when they weren’t going to,” Todaro says, and the company is already recruiting farmers to grow the crop as part of plans to produce 1 million gallons (3.8 million liters) of the oil this year. “By 2010, at current wheat prices [of $5.50 per bushel], we can supply oil at $2 per gallon [and] … we could make north of 50 million gallons.”

But the commercial aviation industry burns nearly 240 million gallons (945 million liters) of Jet A daily and if oil prices were to approach the $150-per-barrel mark reached last year, the demand for Camelina oil might end up driving farmers to grow less wheat—a staple food crop. “If the incentives are wrong it could displace wheat,” UOP’s Holmgren says. “We don’t want it to be priced above what the price is for food.”

That is why the industry is likely to use a variety of different feedstocks—Jatropha, Camelina, algae and others—to create the jet biofuel, Boeing’s Glover says. “Different parts of the world will source differently,” he adds. “That’s another thing we are trying to do with these flights: show that we can use a variety of feedstocks and still get consistent high quality results.”

In the near-term, the jet biofuel is likely to be blended with the petroleum-based variety, because the biofuels lack aromatics—hydrocarbon rings—that interact with the seals in current engines, helping swell them shut. “We fully expect that the first fuels will be 50-50 blends or less just due to the supply availability and the conservative nature of the industry,” Glover says.

The Continental flight—and the Air New Zealand and Virgin Atlantic flights prior to it—prove that such blends can be effective, or even better than petroleum-based kerosene alone. “We have also found that engines running this mix emit less smoke even than those fueled by traditional jet fuel,” said Eric Bachelet, president and CEO of CFM International in a statement.

And with this Continental flight, UOP has proved that blending the biofuels themselves, in this case algae and Jatropha, works well, too. “We have demonstrated two different fuel feedstocks into the same feedtank,” Holmgren says. “We’re going to use a lot of different feedstocks so if you had to use a different fuel tank for each fuel that would be a big problem.”

Already, the first alternative fuel for jets has been certified for use worldwide by the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM)—coal turned to liquid jet fuel by South Africa’s SASOL. And the jet biofuel made by the UOP process has the exact same chemistry; the flights are designed to gather enough data so that the jet biofuel can undergo certification as soon as the end of 2010, according to Richard Altman, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.

By 2017, the Air Transport Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group, hopes to source 10 percent of all aviation fuel from such sustainable plant sources, both to ease the volatility of fuel prices and to cut the emissions of climate-change causing greenhouse gases from aviation.

Boeing hopes to help such biofuels become a “significant part of the commercial fuel supply by 2015,” Glover says. “Three years ago, we started out saying this doesn’t look like it’s possible. But every day we become more and more convinced it’s not only possible, it has huge benefits for industry and the public.”

* By David Biello (S.A., Jan. 2009)