Intelligent Energy

Algae jet fuel helps power United Airlines flight

Algae jet fuel helps power United Airlines flight

Posting in Energy

Algae-based jet fuel developed by Solazyme and Honeywell helped power a United Airlines flight today, making it the first commercial U.S. domestic transport to use the next-generation biofuel.

Algae-based jet fuel developed by Solazyme and Honeywell helped power a United Airlines flight from Houston to Chicago today, making it the first commercial U.S. domestic transport to use the next-generation biofuel.

The Boeing 737-824 carried 189 passengers, using a blend of petroleum-based jet fuel and aviation biofuel made from algal-oil.  The algal oil, provided by Solazyme, was refined into biofuel using process technology from Honeywell's UOP. The United Airlines flight used a blend of 40 percent algae and 60 percent petroleum and didn't require a change to the aircraft or engine.

Aviation biofuels have made slow, yet steady progress from the lab to demonstration projects to commercial use over the past three years. Airlines have flown demonstration flights using oil derived from the jatropha plant, discarded cooking oil and algae-based fuel. And a few European carriers including KLM Royal Dutch Airlines now use biofuels on a regular basis.

Still, cost is still a major barrier between occasional use and widespread commercial adoption of the next-generation biofuels. And most algal-oil and other "green" jet fuel companies have yet to produce enough stock to supply the aviation industry. The U.S. military has been an early, ardent adopter of algae-based jet fuel, largely because it doesn't have the same financial restraints as the commercial aviation industry.

Within the industry, Honeywell has carved an interesting niche for itself by focusing on the process technology to take oil from any number of sources including algae and jatropha plants and turn it into a green jet fuel. To date, Honeywell's green jet fuel has powered 24 commercial and military biofuel flights including the first transatlantic biofuel flight on a Honeywell-operated G 450 business aircraft and the first super-sonic biofuel flight on a Navy F/A-18 Hornet.

Expect Honeywell's green jet fuel to power more domestic and international flights now that the ASTM International (formerly the American for Society for Testing and Materials) has certified the product up to a 50/50 blend on commercial passenger flights.

Photo: Flickr user jurvetson, CC 2.0

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure