United Boosting Biofuel Flights Out Of LAX

There’s been a scattering of commercial airline flights powered by biofuels in the U.S. in recent years, but United appears poised to take cleaner air travel to a new level.

The airline announced a “strategic partnership” with AltAir Fuels that will deliver 5 million gallons of “lower-carbon, renewable jet fuel” per year beginning next year and running through 2016, for a total of 15 million gallons, all to be used on flights out of LAX. AltAir said the drop-in fuels are “expected to achieve at least a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis.”

United Airlines biofuels

2011 flight using biofuel (image via United Continental Holdings)

For AltAir, the deal with United will form the backbone of a Los Angeles operation. The company said it will retrofit an existing unused refinery in the Los Angeles area and will be able to make up to 30 million gallons of fuel and other products.

A United executive called it a “great day for Unite and the aviation biofuels industry” and AltAir’s CEO said “we cannot overestimate how important this milestone is for the commercialization of sustainable aviation biofuels.”

Biofuel is an imprecise term that can describe anything from corn ethanol to fuels made from algae oil grown in the dark. Here we’re talking about “advanced” or “second-generation” biofuels, which move past using sugars and oils found in crops to take advantage of other types of organic matter that doesn’t put pressure on land-use and food supplies and prices. Here’s how AltAir Fuels describes its plans for LA:

Through process technology developed by Honeywell’s UOP, AltAir is retrofitting the existing refinery to produce renewable biofuel. AltAir has worked extensively with Honeywell’s UOP to demonstrate the commercial viability of the Honeywell Green Jet process. Utilizing this technology, licensed from UOP, the AltAir facility will be the first refinery internationally to be capable of in-line production of both renewable jet and diesel fuels. The facility will convert non-edible natural oils and agricultural wastes into approximately 30 million gallons of low-carbon, advanced biofuels and chemicals per year.

In late 2011, United Continental Holdings, corporate parent to United Airlines, said it had signed a letter of intent to negotiate the purchase of 20 million gallons per year of algae biofuel from Solazyme. That occurred the same day a Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800 carried passengers from Houston to Chicago on the demonstration flight using a 40-60 blend of algal biofuel-conventional fuel.


Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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