November 9, 2011

Airlines experiment with algae- and cooking-oil-powered flights

By John D. Sutter, CNN

On Tuesday, algae took a United plane from Houston to Chicago.

And on Wednesday, Alaska Airlines was scheduled to fly from Seattle to Washington D.C. - on cooking oil.

But does this signal, as Alaska Air says, "aviation's next era, where sustainable biofuels can provide a viable alternative to conventional fuel"?

Let's hope so. But maybe not.

First, some less-than-exciting details of these bio-flights:

– The Alaska Air cooking oil - think of it as grease from a McDonald's fryer, Dynamic Fuels told The Guardian - reduced CO2 emissions only by 10%, according to the airline. Meanwhile, that fuel costs six times as much as conventional jet fuel.

– These are only test fights so far - not regular practices. Alaska is running 75 bio-flights, but it's unclear that biofuels will become a large part of the company's energy portfolio. Bill Glover, Boeing's enviro guy, tells NPR that the plane-maker's "near-term target is 1% of all the aviation fuel have some bio-content by 2015."

– Which brings up the next point: These planes aren't running purely on pond scum and fry grease. The biofuels make up about 20 to 50 % of the fuel that's used to fly the planes.

I don't bring up all those negatives to sound like a grouch. It's hard to argue that experimenting with alternative fuels - especially non-food biofuels like algae and cooking oil - is inherently a bad thing for airlines and the environment.

But the supply chains for these fuels don't quite exist yet, making these demonstrations seems like just that – demonstrations.

More on this from NPR:

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., says real progress is at least 15 years away. "What you've got is somewhere between advanced showmanship and expensive subsidies," he says.

A CNN story from June notes that other airlines - including KLM - also are testing out non-food biofuels. Jim Rekoske, from Honeywell, the tech manufacturing company, told our reporter that what we're seeing now are "early adopters" experimenting with new ideas:

"The adoption rate for biofuels is no different to that of any other technology: You get the 'early adopters,' then those who are cautiously optimistic, who sit back and wait and see how the early adopters get on.

"And then there are the laggers, who claim it's not going to work - the ones who won't get an iPhone, because there'll be an iPhone 2 along any minute - and they always take a bit longer to convince."

Original post available here.

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