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United Completes First Commercial Biofuel Powered Flight

RP Siegel | Monday November 7th, 2011 | 6 Comments

United Airlines just announced that Flight 1403, scheduled to take off today, Monday November 7th will be powered by Solazyme’s algae-derived biofuel. This will be the world’s first commercial biofuel powered flight. The flight’s route, from Houston to Chicago, is significant in several ways. First, the departure from Houston can be taken to symbolize a departure from the  “big oil” that Houston has come to represent. Second, it represents a full merging of United and Continental. The flight will be traveling from Continental’s hub in Houston to United’s hub in Chicago. Continental pilots will be manning the cockpit of the United 737-800 Eco-Skies aircraft.

The fuel, branded Solafuel, is a 40/60 blend of algae-based fuel and traditional petroleum-based jet fuel that was produced by a partnership between Solazyme and UOP.

Back in February, Solazyme announced a partnership with Qantas to provide biofuel to the Australian carrier, but United has beaten them to the punch with the first commercial flight. Solazyme was also the first company to produce an algae-derived jet fuel that met FAA specifications. In what is certain to become a major new industry, a major competitor has emerged in Sapphire Energy, which was named one of the top ten green startups of 2010, receiving more than $100 million in venture capital funding.

Other players in this new field that were also spotlighted at last week’s Algal Biofuels Organization (ABO) Summit in Minneapolis include Phycal, BioProcess Algae, Heliae and Algenol.

Two years ago, Continental Airlines launched the first US biofuel test flight, also from Houston, burning a blend of 50 percent standard aviation fuel, 3 percent algae-based fuel from Sapphire (also partnering with UOP) and 47 percent jatropha oil. A month earlier, Air New Zealand ran a test flight using 50/50 jet fuel and jatropha oil. Some consider jatropha, a tropical succulent, a promising jet fuel alternative, but concerns have been raised about the amount of water required to grow it, which is said to be five times more than corn or sugar cane.

Meanwhile, Solazyme is producing not only oil, but also food, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Last month they announced an expanded agreement with Unilever to produce algae-derived oils for making soap and other personal care products, presumably, to cut back on the use of palm oil and petroleum-derived components.

A week later, their Solazyme Roquette Nutritionals subsidiary announced that it will begin producing its microalgae derived food ingredient, Whole Algalin Flour, at Roquette’s commercial production plant in Lestrem, France.

Writing about the ABO conference, biofuels analyst Jim Lane says, “It could be that biofuels, renewable chemicals and materials have an overly complicated and wrongly-told story. What investors have been trained to think is that “green” equals “higher costs,” [meaning it] is a luxury, requires subsidies, and is currently unaffordable. Their belief: carbon mitigation is a cost that will be saddled on the hard-pressed (and possibly unemployed) consumer. They have come to believe that renewables equal subsidies… The message of the industry’s current investors to the world: the military should provide the capital for renewable diesel, that airlines should build out aviation biofuels, that governments need to provide incentives, tax credits, mandates and tariffs for the development (at scale) of everything else. And that anything not already paid for by any of the above should be paid for by oil companies, who apparently should be delighted at the opportunity to invest in putting themselves out of business.”

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water.  Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • fatalgae

    Solydra story is opening a huge can of worms at the DOE LOAN GURANTEE LOAN PROGRAM. Its not just about the Solar loan guarantee program. Look at all the millions in fees collected by the DOE LOAN GUARANTEE PROGRAM with projects 20% completed. Also, an audit needs to be done on DOE GRANTS to individuals from the DOE that are now working in private industry. Very incestuous! There needs to be an audit on each individual loan program for amount funded and results!

    The US taxpayer has spent over $2.5 billion dollars over the last 50 years on algae research. To date, nothing has been commercialized by any algae researcher.

    The REAL question is: Does the DOE BIOMASS PROGRAM really want the US off of foreign oil or do they want to continue funding more grants for algae research to keep algae researchers employed at universities for another 50 years?

    In business, you are not given 50 years to research anything. The problem is in the Congressional Mandate that says the DOE can only use taxpayer monies on algae research, NOT algae production in the US. So far, research has not got the US off of foreign oil for the last 50 years!

    • http://www.triplepundit.com/author/bob-siegel/ RP Siegel

      R&D is inherently risky with a historical 10% success rate. Who will invest in long-term development if not the government? Do you think private industry would have ever developed the space program or the interstate highway system, both of which helped the economy a great deal? Nepotism is wrong and should be rooted out wherever it is found, and grant applications or loan guarantees should be evaluated strictly on their merits. But if a former DOE employee goes to work in a related field, should his application automatically be rejected?

  • fatalgae

    Financiers want results – Not Contracts! Continental did a similar flight a couple of years ago. No one to date is in commercial scale production.

    Clearly Sapphire received guarantees and not loans in this article. Billy Glover needs to be educated – financiers want results, not long-term bs. Didn’t Boeing receive grants from the US government and then went to China for biofuels?

    Aviation Calls For Government Backing To Boost Biofuels
    By Graham Warwick

    The U.S. aviation industry is pressing Congress to extend funding for goverment programs providing support to start up commercial-scale production of renewable biofuels.
    With private investment still hard to find, U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) programs established under the 2008 Farm Bill are playing a key role in providing funding to scale up feedstock production and build the initial biorefineries.

    Work on the 2012 Farm Bill is getting under way, and witnesses at a July 28 hearing of the Senate aviation operations, safety and security subcommittee called for USDA biomass and biorefinery assistance programs to be continued, along with biofuel tax credits and research funding.
    AltAir Fuels, which is producing hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ) fuel from camelina oil, has secured USDA biomass crop assistance program (BCAP) support for farmers in California, Montana and Washington state to plant more than 50,000 acres of the oilseed crop camelina.

    Farmers who participate in the program will be eligible for reimbursement of most of the cost of their camelina acreage for up to five years. “BCAP allows farmers to run for a couple of years to get comfortable with the new crop,” Tom Todaro, AltAir CEO, told senators. “It is a bridging ability to defer the risk, and is critical to farmer adoption.”

    Sapphire Energy has received $54.5 million in loan guarantees from the USDA Biorefinery Assistance Program to build a plant to turn algal oil into jet fuel. Biodiesel producer Imperium Renewables has applied for USDA loan guarantees for a $250 million project to build a plant in the Pacific Northwest capable of producing 80 million gal. of HRJ a year from vegetable oils by 2014.
    Another 10 applications totaling $1 billion, and including jet-fuel projects, are competing for the $463 million in BAP funds remaining under the 2008 Farm Bill, said Judy Canales, administrator for rural business and cooperation programs at the USDA. With dozens of biofuel projects waiting in the wings, “government assistance is essential,” she said.

    Imperium founder and CEO John Plaza appealed to Congress to extend the Pentagon’s ability to sign long-term fuel contracts to 10 or 15 years from the current five. To raise private financing to build the plant, “we need long-term contract commitments,” he said, describing the U.S. Defense Department as “the most important market” to get commercial production started.

    “We need legislation to allow the Defense Department to enter long-term contracts for fuels to attract investment,” said Billy Glover, Boeing managing director for environmental strategy. “Financiers are looking for a commitment of at least 10 years by a party with a AAA credit rating as a prerequisite for underwriting.”

  • anonymous

    Financiers Want Results – Not 10 Year Contracts

    Clearly Sapphire received guarantees and not loans in this article. Billy Glover needs to be educated – financiers want results, not long-term bs. Didn’t Boeing receive grants from the US government and then went to China for biofuels? Isn’t that a breach of national security?

    Aviation Calls For Government Backing To Boost Biofuels
    By Graham Warwick
    The U.S. aviation industry is pressing Congress to extend funding for goverment programs providing support to start up commercial-scale production of renewable biofuels.
    With private investment still hard to find, U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) programs established under the 2008 Farm Bill are playing a key role in providing funding to scale up feedstock production and build the initial biorefineries.

    Work on the 2012 Farm Bill is getting under way, and witnesses at a July 28 hearing of the Senate aviation operations, safety and security subcommittee called for USDA biomass and biorefinery assistance programs to be continued, along with biofuel tax credits and research funding.
    AltAir Fuels, which is producing hydrotreated renewable jet (HRJ) fuel from camelina oil, has secured USDA biomass crop assistance program (BCAP) support for farmers in California, Montana and Washington state to plant more than 50,000 acres of the oilseed crop camelina.
    Farmers who participate in the program will be eligible for reimbursement of most of the cost of their camelina acreage for up to five years. “BCAP allows farmers to run for a couple of years to get comfortable with the new crop,” Tom Todaro, AltAir CEO, told senators. “It is a bridging ability to defer the risk, and is critical to farmer adoption.”

    Sapphire Energy has received $54.5 million in loan guarantees from the USDA Biorefinery Assistance Program to build a plant to turn algal oil into jet fuel. Biodiesel producer Imperium Renewables has applied for USDA loan guarantees for a $250 million project to build a plant in the Pacific Northwest capable of producing 80 million gal. of HRJ a year from vegetable oils by 2014.
    Another 10 applications totaling $1 billion, and including jet-fuel projects, are competing for the $463 million in BAP funds remaining under the 2008 Farm Bill, said Judy Canales, administrator for rural business and cooperation programs at the USDA. With dozens of biofuel projects waiting in the wings, “government assistance is essential,” she said.
    Imperium founder and CEO John Plaza appealed to Congress to extend the Pentagon’s ability to sign long-term fuel contracts to 10 or 15 years from the current five. To raise private financing to build the plant, “we need long-term contract commitments,” he said, describing the U.S. Defense Department as “the most important market” to get commercial production started.

    “We need legislation to allow the Defense Department to enter long-term contracts for fuels to attract investment,” said Billy Glover, Boeing managing director for environmental strategy. “Financiers are looking for a commitment of at least 10 years by a party with a AAA credit rating as a prerequisite for underwriting.”

  • http://www.biocepts.com dduggerbiocepts

    Failing to discuss biofuel (especially alga’s) dependence on peak phosphate (NPK)- same as our foods is criminally irresponsible. There are no currently no technologies that recover phosphorus from the environment any where near the cost/efficiency – not even within orders of magnitudes – of the cheap peak phosphates (peak less 30 yrs away, as little as 50 to depletion of all economically feasible mined deposits). The economic feasibility of phosphate mining is tied directly to the cost of the petroluem fuels used in mining it. Now consider that 95% of the global 7+ billion peoples food supply is currently dependent on mined phosphates. Do really want to use phosphates – NPK fertilizers to grow biofuels for transportation in what is a slow motion catastrophe limiting our food supply? Peak petroleum = peak phosphate = peak food = peak people.

    • http://www.triplepundit.com/author/bob-siegel/ RP Siegel

      I’m not sure that not knowing about this constitutes a criminal act, but I appreciate you bringing it to my attention. I will look into this.