United flew the first U.S. commercial passengers from Bush Intercontinental to Chicago’s O’Hare, powered with a new eco-friendly jet fuel. Airline Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer Pete McDonald, says the flight demonstrates United’s
commitment to sustainable biofuels, toward achieving energy security, diversity of fuel supply and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
“The fuel will perform just like traditional jet fuel, which means its use requires no modifications to our engines or aircraft. Our pilots will operate the plane the same way they would operate a flight using traditional jet fuel. And the passengers on the flight will not see, feel or hear any difference in the aircraft’s performance.”
The blend of petroleum based jet fuel and aviation biofuel is made from algae-oil, provided by Solazyme. Harrison Dillon is president and co-founder of the company. He says a fermentation process is used, a process familiar to brewmasters.
“We put into a big steel fermentation tank, similar to what you would use to make beer. We put in plant sugars and then we infuse the algae, and the algae converts the sugar into crude oil in about two days. And once we have that oil, we can then refine it to diesel or jet fuel, any type of fuel we want to make, at a regular oil refinery.”
He says the oil was manufactured in the U.S. and taken to a refinery outside Houston, where it refined into jet fuel. Dillon says scientists allow time and nature to transform a small vial of algae, no bigger than your thumb.
“We put it into the container, and it divides exponentially until you have enough algae, and then it converts all of the sugar into oil. So the vial that you start is just a seed, and then each vial can be grown to an indefinitely large size, depending on how big your tank is.”
Aviation biofuels have made slow and steady progress from the lab to commercial use over the past three years. But the price is still a major barrier, it costs about four times that of regular jet fuel. Dillon expects that to change as companies secure funding to build plants to produce it on a massive scale.
“You don’t need to build or design or pay for any extra infrastructure. You just take the oil, put it through the refinery, pipeline it, truck it, fuel it into the existing engines, and you can fly.”
Analysts say the biofuel flights could eventually lead to better fuel price control for the airlines.