New Era in Aviation Begins: Continental, Alaska Air Fly on Biofuels

A new era in aviation begins this week as the first commercial flights run partially on algae-based and cooking oil-based jet fuels.

And as airlines adopt biofuels, the first of many new "business categories" takes off – aviation biofuels broker – to arrange delivery of those fuels.

Today, Continental flew the first commerical flight on a blend of algae biofuels, and Alaska Airline Group announced that 75 commercial passenger flights in the US would be powered partly by used cooking oil, starting this Wednesday.

Airbus estimates airlines may derive 30% of their fuel from plant-derived sources by 2030.

Airline executives and biofuel developers say they see huge potential for this new industry, but they need a reliable supply, which means supportive government policy to develop supply chains that can compete with petroleum.

Continental Flies from Houston to Chicago

Passengers on Continental’s Flight 1403, departed at 10:30 AM running on a combination of Solazyme’s (Nasdaq:SZYM) algae oil, which is refined into jet fuel, and conventional fuels. The Solajet fuel blend consists of 40% biofuel and 60% petroleum-based jet fuel.

United Airlines, which owns Continental and is the world’s largest airline, also signed a letter of intent with Solazyme to purchase 20 million gallons of algae-based jet fuel a year, starting in 2014.

Solazyme, headquartered in south San Francisco, produced the world’s first 100% algae-derived jet fuel for commercial and military applications. It manufactured the algae oil used on today’s flight through a proprietary fermentation process, which was then refined into fuel near Houston using a process developed by Honeywell.

"Today, roughly four months since the approval of hydroprocessed renewable fuels in commercial aviation, we are excited to see the deployment of these fuels on a domestic U.S. flight," says Air Transport Association of America) Vice President and Chief Economist John Heimlich.

Continental says it’s also improved fuel efficiency by more than  32% since 1994 by streamlining operations and investing in new airplanes that use 20% less fuel. And over 3600 alternative-fueled or zero-emission vehicles operate on the ground for United and Continental.

75 Alaska Air Flights

Over the next two weeks, 75 flights between Seattle, Portland, Oregon and Washington DC will fly on 20% biofuel, starting on November 9.

The biofuel used by Alaska Airlines and sister airline, Horizon Air, is a blend of used cooking oil. The company estimates the 20% blend will reduce greenhouse gas emissions 10%.

SkyNRG, an aviation biofuels broker, supplied the fuel, which is made by Dynamic Fuels, a $170 million joint-venture between Tyson Foods Inc. (NYSE: TSN) and Syntroleum Corp. (NASDAQ: SYNM). The company makes synthetic fuels from used cooking oil.

Saying he believes sustainable biofuels are key to aviation’s future, Alaska Air Group CEO Bill Ayer comments, "Commercial airplanes are equipped and ready for biofuels. They will enable us to fly cleaner, foster job growth in a new industry, and can insulate airlines from the volatile price swings of conventional fuel to help make air travel more economical. What we need is an adequate, affordable and sustainable supply. To the biofuels industry, we say: If you build it, we will buy it."

"Aviation clearly needs a clean energy alternative to fossil fuels," says Boeing Commercial Airplanes Vice President of Environment and Aviation Policy Billy Glover. "In the U.S. and around the world, the industry is doing all it can to support sustainable biofuel development and maintain aviation’s role in global economic growth. To make that happen we must develop regional supply chains, and that takes supportive government policies that encourage investment in the early stages of this emerging sector."

"Government policies supporting advanced biofuels are essential to ensure that the aviation biofuels industry reaches its full potential and is able to compete against foreign petroleum," says Bob Ames, Tyson Foods’ vice president of renewable energy and member of the Dynamic Fuels management committee.

Alaska Air Group has been a partner in Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest, a 10-month regional stakeholder effort, which determed the Pacific Northwest has the feedstocks, delivery infrastructure and political will needed to create a viable biofuels industry.

In July, 2011, technical standards group ASTM International gave the airlines the go-ahead to incorporate biofuels into as much as 50% of the total fuel they use on passenger flights. They certified advanced biofuels as meeting the ASTM International specification for bio-derived aviation fuels, "Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids" (HEFA) fuel.

The fuels underwent rigorous testing and review by engine and airframe manufacturers, the U.S. military, the FAA and airlines, and were found to have identical characteristics to  conventional jet fuel — but cleaner.

These advanced biofuels are drop-in replacements for petroleum-based fuel, requiring no modification to engines or aircraft. Pilots operate the aircraft the way they’ve always done and passengers won’t sense any difference – no friench fry smell! 

In May, Solazyme was the first algae-to-fuels company to list on a major public market.

Sir Richard Branson announced last month that he would soon begin a pilot to prepare Virgin Atlantic Airways to run on waste gas-based fuel by 2014. The fuel is made from recycled industrial gases, which are captured from industrial steel production, and then fermented and chemically converted into jet fuel.

Meanwhile, the airline industry, House Republicans, and the Obama Administration are fighting the EU on its requirement to participate in its cap-and-trade program, starting January 2012.

In August, President Obama announced a $510 million public-private partnership to produce advanced drop-in aviation and marine biofuels.

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