Biofuel Flies the Friendly Skies


For a wingless species, we fly a lot. With astonishing speed, we’re transported from one corner of the world to another. Air travel is both a luxury and a necessity in today’s global economy. But it comes at an environmental price. Commercial aviation is detrimental to the environment not only because it releases large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into high-altitude airspace, but also because it uses an inordinate amount of fossil fuels.

When jet fuel burns, it releases carbon. Carbon bonds with oxygen (O2) in the air to form CO2. It also releases water vapor, nitrous oxides, sulphate, and soot. When released at high altitude, studies show that these emissions have a more harmful impact on the environment because they trigger chemical reactions and atmospheric changes that create a net warming effect.

Although the industry is taking measures to decrease both its carbon emissions and fuel consumption, according to the Bureau of Transportation it used 16,729.6 million gallons of fuel in 2015.

On March 11, 2016, a United Airlines Boeing 737 made history, however, when it ascended through the clouds above Los Angeles International Airport as the first regular commercial flight to be powered by biofuel. The flight will continue to shuttle passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The plane’s engines were powered by a blend of 70% petroleum-based fuel and 30% sustainable biofuel, derived from non-edible natural oils and agricultural wastes. This blend, formulated by AltAir, based in Paramount, CA, is expected to offer a 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. According to United’s website, AltAir has converted a former refinery into a biofuel facility able to produce 30 million gallons per year. In addition to the Alt Air agreement, United Airlines invested $30 million last June in Fulcrum BioEnergy, a company developing technologies for transforming municipal solid waste (regular household trash) into biofuel. 

The agreement between United and AltAir represents the first commercial-scale purchase of alternative jet fuels by a US airline that incorporates biofuels into regular operations. United has committed to purchasing up to 15 million gallons of biofuel over a three-year period.

The airline industry plans to reduce its net carbon emissions to half of its 2005 levels by 2050. It also plans to improve fuel efficiency by 1.5% each year through 2020. The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (IACAO) is currently working toward the world’s first CO2 emissions standards for aircraft to help the global airline industry achieve its goals.

Although the take off of United’s flight 708 from LAX to SFO in April may have looked like any other, for the airlines and the biofuels industry, it represented monumental advancement toward the reduction of fossil fuel usage and carbon emissions.

“Today’s historic launch of regularly scheduled service utilizing advanced biofuels represents a major next step in our ongoing commitment to operate sustainably and responsibly,” said Angela Foster-Rice, United’s managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability.

Do you think that this biofuel conversion will inspire other industries to follow suit? What are your thoughts? BE_bug_web


  • mike petersen.

    the article sounds like there is this big conversion by United airlines to Bio fuel because a plant was purchased that can produce 30 million gallons a year but united is only buying half a years worth of fuel. of course there is no comparison of the price of the bio fuel to regular fuel, which after all is the driving force of business.

    • Laura S.

      Thank you for commenting, Mike. As mentioned in the blog post, only one route (SFO-LAX) is designated as a biofuel route. But it could be representative of a broader conversion. Time–and as you mention, dollars–will tell.

  • Jim Hinton.

    I notice that they carefully avoided mentioning the cost of this fuel. The price will take care of high amounts of air traffic. When running this fuel, no one could afford to fly.


Leave a Reply

Enter Your Log In Credentials