Last updated: 09:30 AM ET, Mon March 14 2016

United Airlines Launches Flight Powered by Garbage

Airlines & Airports | United Airlines | Josh Lew | March 14, 2016

United Airlines Launches Flight Powered by Garbage

Photo courtesy of United Airlines

Coverage of United Airlines in recent weeks has revolved around the return of its CEO from a heart transplant and an attempted takeover of the airline's board of directors by activist investors.

However, the airline had another major event take place this past Friday when its popular flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco took off with added fanfare.

Biofuel taking off with United in Los Angeles

The flight, which takes a little over an hour, was powered by a blend of regular jet fuel and specially made biofuel. The biofuel, made in a refinery owned by a company called AltAir Fuels using technology developed by Honeywell, was mixed with regular jet fuel in a 30-70 ratio. United contends that the mixture will help it reduce greenhouse emissions by more than 60 percent.

The fuel used Friday was, in some sense, made from garbage. Apparently, the main ingredient for this particular batch was farm waste. However, Honeywell’s technology can be used to create a similar fuel from a number of different sources, including algae and plant waste.

This waste-based method for creating biofuel is preferable to some other fuel types such as corn-based ethanol, which can impact food prices.

READ MORE: Why More And More Airlines Are Going Green

The first American carrier to use alternative fuel regularly

Other airlines have been experimenting with various biofuel blends for the past few years. However, United claims that it will take its Los Angeles project beyond the experimental stage and become the first American carrier (and one of the first airlines in the world) to use biofuel for regular commercial operations.

Assuming all goes well during the initial two weeks of the biofuel project, the ambition is to eventually use biofuel mixtures on all its flights operating out of LAX. This may take a while to achieve. Over the next three years, United has committed to buying 15 million gallons of biofuel from AltAir. Another company, Fulcrum Bioenegry, will start producing fuel made from what it calls “municipal solid waste” (things like paper, plastics, woods) in 2017. It plans to make its first delivery to United by 2018.

Starting small

United is closely tied to the Fulcrum project. It has invested $30 million to help the company build a refinery (in Reno, Nevada). However, the biofuel market has gotten more difficult recently as oil prices have fallen and there is not as much momentum to quickly create and mass produce alternative fuels.

Even if Fulcrum can eventually match AltAir’s 15 million gallons, it will only be a start towards United ending its reliance on traditional jet fuel. United used than two billion gallons of fuel last year, so the new garbage-based gas will only replace a small portion of that overall quantity.

That said, the memory of sky high fuel prices is still fresh in United's memory. Developing biofuel sources will be a way to hedge against such oil price spikes in the future. This practical motivation should be enough to move this project forward even though traditional fuel is now cheap. 

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