Flying on Fat, Farm Waste and Trash

Flying on Fat, Farm Waste and Trash

Passengers who frequent United Airlines’ West Coast shuttle service between Los Angeles and San Francisco will soon be doing their part to save the planet simply by taking their seats and fastening their seatbelts. The airline is preparing to use an alternative jet biofuel that includes a blend of non-edible oils and agricultural waste. It will be a first for regularly scheduled U.S. passenger service.

United is in a partnership with AltAir Fuels and World Fuel Services to buy 30 million gallons of low-carbon, renewable jet fuel over a multi-year period. In addition, United has invested $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy, a startup that turns household trash into jet fuel. Fulcrum's first refinery will be finished in 2016 near Tesla’s planned Gigafactory in Nevada.

Experimenting with alternative fuel mixes is nothing new for United. It flew its first algae-based biofuel test flight in the U.S. in 2009 and started using that fuel commercially two years later on flights between Houston and Chicago.

United’s jets will soon fly between LA and San Francisco on a biofuel mix. (Source: United Airlines)

As you might imagine, regulators don’t let commercial flights run on 100 percent biofuel just yet, but even a mix of 70 percent jet fuel and 30 percent biofuel has a positive impact on the environment. In fact, Fulcrum says its fuel lowers emissions by 80 percent, not only because its creation doesn’t generate greenhouse gases but also because it keeps waste out of landfills, thereby reducing methane emissions.

Is the fuel cost-effective? Yes, says United, noting that Fulcrum produces its biofuel for less than $1 per gallon, while United’s fuel cost is typically around $2.11 per gallon. Better pricing is bringing more airlines into the fold. Alaska Airlines plans to use biofuels in at least one airport by 2016; Southwest buys fuel made from wood residue; and British Airways is in a joint venture to build a biofuel refinery near Heathrow Airport outside of London.

Commercial airlines are already on record with a promise to control the growth of their carbon emissions through 2020 and cap them then. By 2050, the International Air Transport Association says, the airline industry wants to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to half of its 2005 levels. One way to do that: by burning fuel like biowaste that has already absorbed its carbon, not fuel like oil that comes up from below and introduces new carbon into the planet’s increasingly fragile ecosystem. 

Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel, and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.

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