You Can’t Fly an Airplane With an Algae Pond On It…Or Can You?

United Airlines commits to biofuelUnited Airlines made waves last year when it became one of the first commercial U.S. airlines to use algae biofuel, and it quickly followed up by joining the Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative last spring. Now the airline is bumping its commitment to sustainable aviation up another notch through a new partnership with the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group.

United’s growing confidence in biofuels calls to mind presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s now-infamous statement that “you can’t drive a care with a windmill on it.” Broadly speaking, the candidate was drawing a contrast with fossil fuels in order to make the case that renewable energy is unrealistic as a transportation fuel. But ummm…yeah, so let’s make that comparison. When was the last time you flew in an airplane with an oil field on it?

The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group

SAFUG is an industry group founded in 2008 with the goal of kickstarting the commercialization of sustainable aviation fuels.

Though the airline industry is probably one of the most intensely competitive sectors in modern commerce, United’s top management recognizes that future growth cannot be assured unless the industry collaborates on the next generation of aviation fuels.

By partnering with established environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council, SAFUG has embraced a well-rounded approach to alternative fuels that goes beyond renewability.

Included in SAFUG’s goals are requirements that sustainable biofuels protect biodiversity, don’t compete with food crops, and conform to standards for land, water and energy use.

Socioeconomic impacts are also a concern for SAFUG, presumably in hopes that a thriving biofuel industry will avoid the devastating impacts that fossil fuel harvesting can have on local communities.

Why fly on biofuels?

The aviation industry’s interest in biofuels stems from its desire to create stability and predictability in the price of air travel. A more diversified fuel supply will provide a buffer against the price spikes and supply issues that bedevil the petroleum market.

For biofuels to prove cost effective, though, they must perform as least as well as their petroleum counterparts. In addition, the industry requires that biofuels can be substituted for petroleum products on a drop-in basis, without requiring changes in the engine or fuel handling and shipping systems.

Both of these aspects are being addressed by the U.S. Navy, which has been developing an aggressive biofuel program of its own while partnering with the aviation industry, biofuel companies and other stakeholders.

So far, the Navy has found that a 50-50 blend of biofuel and petroleum fuel can substitute for 100 percent petroleum on a drop-in basis. Biofuels Digest also reports that alternative fuels, including biofuels, have performed better than their conventional counterparts when tested on Navy aircraft.

Biofuels and sustainable aviation

Developing a commercial market for biofuels is one part of the sustainability equation, and United is doing its part with a pledge to negotiate for more than 50 million gallons of biofuel.

Conservation is another key element and United appears to have a leg up on this side, too.

Among the company’s main initiatives are recent and planned investments in fuel efficient aircraft that have already resulted in a 32 percent improvement in fleet efficiency. The airline is also transitioning to electric vehicle technology and other alternative fuels for its ground fleet.

Image: Algae. Some rights reserved by shaferlens.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.



Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

One response

  1. If you’re an airline CEO or the Secretary of the Navy or a
    civilian consumer, here is your current choice for “drop-in” true
    hydrocarbon fuels: $3.50-$4.00 a gallon for conventional jet fuel (actual military
    bulk contract price is $2.08 for Jet A-1/JP-4), $3.90 a gallon to SASOL for
    coal-based FTD fuel, $7.00 a gallon to PM Group for natural gas-based FTD fuel,
    $26.75 a gallon to Dynamic Fuels for Tyson chicken fat-based fuel, $34.90 a
    gallon to Sustainable Oils for camelina-based jet fuel, $59.00 a gallon to Gevo
    for alcohol-to-jet fuel (have since left the fuel business along with Amyris),
    $61.33 a gallon to Solazyme for sugar-fed algae-based fuel, $4,454.55 a gallon
    upcharge to Albemarle for converting Cobalt n-butanol to jet fuel, $11,000 a
    gallon upcharge to Honeywell UOP for converting Gevo isobutanol to jet fuel.
    These are the most recent prices paid by various branches of the U.S.
    government. These prices are driven by the progressively poorer
    thermodynamics of the processes involved. The inconvenient truth of all
    “drop-in” biofuels is that they are all critically dependent upon
    fossil fuel to source the critical mass of their hydrogen, which is the
    principal energy carrier of hydrocarbon fuels. If we run out of oil, we
    run out of biofuels (and more importantly food, BTW) because natural gas and
    crude oil provide the hydrogen and carbon that makes our fertilizer and
    pesticide and herbicide and machinery fuel and processing plant energy and is
    used to hydro-treat the end product alcohol or lipid. The prices of
    biofuels are already shown to track with the price of oil, and will follow oil
    proportionately higher if oil prices spike. Even corn ethanol, a
    non-drop-in fuel, and one which has been subsidized at more than $6B a year
    since 2005 and has a government-guaranteed market is still more expensive than
    premium gasoline on a MPG-corrected basis (see what the unlucky E85 customer is
    paying at AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge
    Report.” ). Anyone who
    thinks the airlines will be flying on biofuels without some massive,
    economy-destroying subsidy regime that attempts the impossible act of cutting
    the trunk of fossil fuels out from under the tree of the world’s primary energy
    supply is high–and not in the altitude sense.

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