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Tina Casey headshot

You Can't Fly an Airplane With an Algae Pond On It...Or Can You?

By Tina Casey

United 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 Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.

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