By Katrice R. Jalbuena
Three North American airlines are beginning commercial biofuel flights, while China flag carrier Air China conducted its first sustainable biofuel flight as air carriers worldwide seek to bring down their operations emissions through the use of renewable fuels.
United Airlines operated its first commercial flight powered partially by algae-based fuel on Monday, while Alaska Airlines began its biofuel-powered service on Wednesday with two flights from Seattle to Washington D.C. and Portland.
Mexico's flag carrier, Aero Mexico has been running a weekly flight from Mexico City to San Jose Costa Rica since September.
Air China, on the other hand, conducted a successful biofuel demonstration flight on October 28. Using a sustainable biofuel derived from biomass, a Boeing 747 completed a one hour flight at Beijing Capital International Airport.
United Continental and algae
United Continental Holdings, which owns both United Airlines and Continental Airlines, released a statement on November 7 announcing that its subsidiary Continental Airlines was the first U.S. airline to fly a commercial flight using a biofuel blend.
Flight 1403, a Boeing 737-800, departed Houston's Bush International Airport and landed at Chicago O' Hare International Airport. The plane was fueled with 40 percent Solajet - an algae-derived jet fuel from Solazyme - and 60 percent petroleum-derived jet fuel.
United has signed a letter of intent with the San Francisco-based Solazyme for the purchase of 20 million gallons of the algae-based jet fuel a year. Delivery is expected as early as 2014.
The Continental flight builds on United's Eco-skies commitment to being an environmentally responsible company.
"Advancing a greener, more diverse fuel supply for the future is a top priority for United," said Jimmy Samartzis, United's managing director of global environmental affairs and sustainability.
The company has improved fuel efficiency by more than 32 percent since 1994, and aside from experimenting with alternative fuels in their aircraft, both United and Continental use more than 3,600 alternatively fueled or zero-emission ground service equipment vehicles.
The United Flight 1403 is also considered a milestone for Solazyme and was cited as a highlight in its financial report for the third quarter.
"Demand for our products continues to be strong and our technology is proven, as evidenced by United Airlines choosing Solajet for the first U.S. commercial flight on biofuels this morning," said Jonathan Wolfson, Solazyme chief executive officer.
Solazyme's business consists of transforming a range of plant-based sugars into high-value oils that can replace or enhance oils derived from petroleum. They have three target markets: fuels and chemicals; nutrition; and skin and personal care.
Total revenue for the third quarter of this year was $8.9 million, higher compared to $4.6 million for the same time period in 2010. However, the company also recorded a net loss of $14.09 million, higher compared to $8.9 million in 2010.
Alaska Airlines and used cooking oil
Alaska Airlines started their biofuel-powered service with two flights from Seattle to Washington, D.C. and Portland, Oregon on November 9.
Along with their sister carrier Horizon Air, they will be flying 75 commercial passenger flights in the next few weeks along the same routes using a 20 percent biofuel blend derived from used cooking oil.
"This is a historic week for U.S. aviation. The 75 flights that Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air will fly over the next few weeks reflect our longstanding commitment to environmental responsibility and our belief that sustainable biofuels are key to aviation's future," Alaska Air Group Chairman and chief executive officer Bill Ayer said.
The airline estimates that the use of this biofuel blend in the 75 planned flights will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 10 percent, or 134 metric tons, the equivalent of taking 26 cars of the road for a year.
Supposing the airline powered all of its flights with a 20 percent biofuel blend for one year, the annual emissions savings would represent the equivalent of taking nearly 64,000 cars off the road.
The fuel is supplied by SkyNRG, an aviation biofuels broker and made by Dynamic Fuels, a producer of next-generation renewable, synthetic fuels made from used cooking oil.
Dynamic Fuels is a $170 million joint-venture between Tyson Foods, Inc. and Syntroleum Corp. The company's technology can produce a variety of diesel products from animal byproducts such as beef tallow and pork and chicken fat.
Aeromexico and biodiesel
While United Continental and Alaska Air are starting out their regular biofuel flights, Mexican flag carrier Aeromexico has been operating a once-a-week biofuel flight from Mexico City to San Jose, Costa Rica since September 27.
The flight, a Boeing 737-700 with a capacity of up to 124 passengers, uses a 15 percent blend of camelina based biofuel and petroleum-based fuel.
The fuel is produced by UOP LLC, part of technology conglomerate Honeywell International, which has developed a process to convert non-edible, second-generation natural oils to a drop-in jet fuel that requires no changes to fleet technology or infrastructure.
The company can use a variety of sustainable feedstock to produce green jet fuel, including algae and, in the case of the Aeromexico flights, camelina. UOP estimates that green jet fuel can offer a 65 to 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to regular fuel.
Before the Costa Rica route, Aeromexico tested a transatlantic commercial flight from Mexico to Madrid. This was on August of this year and also used green jet fuel.
Air China and jatropha
Air China's biofuel demonstration flight on October 28 was in partnership with Boeing, Honeywell UOP, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, PetroChina, and aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.
The Boeing 747 flew for about an hour with one engine running on a mixture of half biofuel and half traditional jet fuel.
According to China Daily, the test flight consumed more than 10 tons of biofuel.
The plane used PW4000 94-inch engines, supplied by Pratt & Whitney. No modifications to the aircraft or engine were required for the biofuel, making it a drop-in replacement for petroleum-based fuel.
The biofuel used in the flight was developed and produced by China National Petroleum Corp. after 10 years of research and development, C.N.P.C. deputy general manager Shen Diancheng said.
"As one of the largest and fast growing aviation markets, China needs to grow its aviation industry in an environmentally friendly and economical way," said Mr. He Li, senior vice president of Air China.
Reducing aviation emissions
According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the aviation sector accounts for approximately 1.5 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions per year. The rate air travel is also growing.
From 2000-2006, domestic air transport in China alone increased by 15.5 percent annually while globally it increased 3.8 percent.
The research firm added that a combination of operational practices, lower-carbon fuels, and higher aircraft fuel efficiency could reduce annual GHG emissions from global aviation by more than 50 percent below business-as-usual projections, causing aviation emissions to simply double, rather than quadruple, by 2050.
Mitigating the rising level of emissions from the aviation sector requires the minimizing of fuel use as well as the development of lower-carbon alternative fuels.
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