On March 11, United Airlines launched an initiative to power flights operating between Los Angeles and San Francisco with biofuels. This is the first time that a U.S. airline company will use biofuels for regular commercial services. The company plans to eventually expand biofuels use to all United Airline flights departing from the Los Angeles International Airport. Last Friday, the journey of Flight 708 from Los Angeles to San Francisco marked the first domestic flight on biofuels.  

United has been a leader in the use of sustainable fuels in the United States. In 2009, the company was the first to conduct a test flight using biofuel and continues to expand efforts to use biofuels. As Angela Foster-Rice, the managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability at United Airlines, stated in a press release, "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.”

The flights will be powered by a mixture of 30 percent biofuel and 70 percent petroleum jet fuel. According to United, this is price-competitive with traditional jet fuel but will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 60 percent compared to regular jet fuels. The jet fuels are supplied by an AltAir Fuels-operated refinery in Los Angeles, using a technology developed by Honeywell UOP, a major supplier in the petroleum industry. The refinery can produce renewable fuels from different sources, including used cooking oil, algae and farm wastes. Over a three-year period, United will buy up to 15 million gallons of biofuels from AltAir.

In February, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announced aviation greenhouse gas emissions regulation standards. The use of biofuels is regarded as one possibility for existing aircraft to reduce emissions without upgrading their engines or their designs. Compared to electric aircraft, which are difficult to commercialize in a foreseeable future, “drop-in” fuels, renewable fuels that are designed to be compatible with existing petroleum fuels are a more promising choice for the aviation industry.

The interest in renewable jet fuel in this country is expanding. For instance, United recently also made a $30 million investment in Fulcrum Bioenergy, with a focus on biofuels converted from municipal solid waste. United is expected to purchase more than 90 million gallons of renewable fuels per year from Fulcrum. Southwest Airlines and FedEx also recently signed purchase agreements with Red Rock Biofuels in Oregon, a facility built with government funding and producing renewable jet fuels from forest residues.  Alaska Airlines has recently partnered with Gevo, and Southwest is working on its offtake agreement with Joule Unlimited.

There is a question whether other airlines will have a similar interest in renewable fuels in the near future.  How much airlines will be willing to pay for renewable fuels, as well as the sustainability and efficiency of the fuels, are important questions to consider for the future of bio-jet fuels. Nevertheless, many are optimistic about the potential in this area. With the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent endangerment finding on aviation emissions and ICAO regulations, the demand for renewable jet fuels has been sparked.


Author: Taotao Luo


For more information see: 

United Airlines is flying on biofuels. Here’s why that’s a really big deal, The Washington Post

United Airlines Marks an Industry First by Using Commercial-Scale Biofuel, Bidnessetc

Renewable Jet Fuel is Taking Flight. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Department of Energy.

Norway’s Oslo Airport Now Offers Jet Biofuel to All Airlines, AIChE