Intelligent Energy

Your next flight could be plant powered

Posting in Energy

Commercial airliners are traversing the globe powered by plants, trash, and even recycled industrial waste gases.

The next time that you board an airliner, you may be an unwitting participant in green technology testing. Major airlines are booking commercial flights on planes fueled by algae, plant oils, discarded cooking oil, trash, and even recycled industrial waste.

Airlines across the globe are experimenting with alternative fuel sources to hedge against volatile oil prices, become more sustainable, and reduce carbon pollution emissions. Here are some examples of how the industry is faring.

Today, SmartPlanet’s Kirsten Korosec wrote about how United Airlines has partnered up with Solazyme and Honeywell to use an algae-based fuel on a flight from Houston to Chicago.

Solazyme became a public company on its ability to create renewable oil through microbial fermentation – meaning, algae is decomposed into fuel by microbes. Ethanol fuel is similarly produced by the microbial fermentation of sugar.

Honeywell subsidiary UOP has gained traction in the airline industry with its green jet fuel process.

Honeywell has carved a niche for itself in producing airline fuel from renewable sources such as plants. It flew the world’s first non-stop biofuel powered trans-Atlantic flight last summer. Its green fuel technology has powered demonstration flights by Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines, and Japan Airlines,

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines operates "green" flights on biofuel between Amsterdam and Paris. Its planes use a biofuel blend that's made from discarded cooking oil, which is provided by a consortium of suppliers including Dynamic Fuels and SkyNRG. Alaska Airlines will fly 75 flights over the next several weeks using a similar mixture.

Germany’s Lufthansa was the first major airline to put biofuel into mainstream use on commercial passenger flights, last summer. Daily flights between Hamburg and Frankfurt are loaded with a blend of kerosene and feedstock from Finland’s Neste Oil.

An Air China Boeing 747 flew last week on a biofuel blend produced from jatropha, an inedible plant that grows on marginal lands. The plant's oily seeds are sometimes championed as a renewable biofuel feedstock. Honeywell and PetroChina jointly produced the fuel.

Plants aren't the only future fuel. British Airways has collaborated with the Washington, D.C.-based bioenergy firm Solena Group to convert London’s trash into oil. The airline plans to use the fuel with its fleet starting in 2014.

Also last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a partnership with LanzaTech, a start-up from New Zealand that has developed a process to convert carbon monoxide containing gases into fuel. The waste gases would otherwise become carbon dioxide.

Industrial waste gases will be reclaimed at locations such as steel mills, fermented, and then chemically converted into jet fuel using technology provided from Swedish Biofuels. The fuel has half the carbon footprint of conventional oil, Virgin says.

Murky Green

Virgin will participate in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme beginning next year, but that program has not been without controversy. China threatened a trade war with Europe over the program, because the rules forces the airline of origin to cover the carbon costs associated with every flight.

Airlines are nonetheless adopting varied approaches to achieve greater sustainability, and a new greener era of aviation is dawning. However, not every is pleased with the change - especially when biofuels are considered.

Biofuel critics allege that the fuels will contribute to hunger and poverty.  A group calling itself “Friends of the Earth” condemned Lufthansa’s landmark flight last summer as “green washing.”

A spokesperson for Friends of the Earth said that biofuels drive "land grabbing" and deforestation, raise food prices, and worsen climate change. Even so, the airline industry and governments around the world are targeting lower future emission levels. Could the cure be worse than the disease?

Share this

David Worthington

Contributing Editor

David Worthington has written for BetaNews, eWeek, PC World, Technologizer and ZDNet. Formerly, he was a senior editor at SD Times. He holds a business degree from Temple University. He is based in New York. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure