When United Airlines flight UA708 flies from Los Angeles to San Francisco this Friday morning, there will be something different about the plane. The commuters for the heavily traveled route, which takes a little more than an hour to fly between the cities, won't notice anything. But the flight won't be running on its usual jet fuel. Instead, it will be running on biofuel converted from trash and farm waste.
The initiative, which will continue for the route and is planned for expansion to all of United’s jet-fuel supply for LAX in the coming months, replaces conventional jet fuel with a 70% to 30% mix of petroleum-based fuel and biofuel. United refers to the fuel as "renewable jet fuel," and it’s part of a growing industry trend of finding nonpetroleum-based sources for airplane fuel.
United is working with two vendors, AltAir Fuels and Fulcrum Bioenergy, on the project. AltAir provides biofuel to the U.S. Navy to fuel aircraft carriers. Fulcrum Bioenergy has received significant investment from both United Airlines (which has $30 million of equity in the company) and Cathay Pacific Airlines. Other airlines have already begun acquiring biofuel from other sources. Alaska Airlines, for instance, recently inked a test agreement with a third company called Gevo.
Both Fulcrum and AltAir specialize in turning trash—literal trash—into fuel that can power a large passenger aircraft. AltAir’s process is based around converting inedible animal fat, grease, and oil into fuel, while Fulcrum converts what they call "municipal solid waste" into jet fuel. AltAir has a refining facility located just outside of Los Angeles, while Fulcrum’s facility is located in Reno. As part of United’s investment in Fulcrum, the company is also planning additional facilities to be located near United hubs, such as New York/Newark, Chicago, and Houston.
United Airlines managing director of environmental affairs and sustainability Angela Foster-Rice says that this is the first time there’s been full commercial deployment of renewable biofuel for jets at an airport in the United States. Following the Friday morning flight, United plans to run two more weeks of flights based on a dedicated fuel blend AltAir provides the airline. Once the two weeks are up, United says it will then add the fuel into their hydrant system, which will be used to refuel all of the airline’s flights that fuel at LAX.
The launch, which was originally planned for this summer, was delayed until March. United says Fulcrum plans to begin commercial operations at their first plant in 2017, and for Fulcrum to start supplying the airline with fuel in 2018. In the past, the airline also experimented with other alternative fuel methods, such as a flight powered by algae-derived fuel in 2009.
As to why United, Cathay Pacific, Alaska, and other large airlines are interested in alternative fuels, it’s partly strategic, partly to work better with governments, and partly for public relations. Apart from the good press of fueling passenger jets with alternative fuels, airlines are being pressed by both national governments and international regulators to reduce their carbon emissions. Adopting ahead of the curve means fewer costs later on—and gives airlines a hedge against rising oil prices and limited petroleum availability in the future.
But in the here and now, there’s just one problem: Oil prices dropped significantly in late 2014. This means that airlines have one less reason to adopt biofuels on a mass basis at the moment. However, Fulcrum, AltAir, and their competitors hold the possibility of producing fuel at considerably lower prices than airlines currently source it. In 2014, United Airlines burned a staggering 3.9 billion gallons of fuel.
With all that said, however, circumstances (and oil prices) change. In the meantime, airlines have gotten hip to something of increasing importance: It might just be cheaper to fly a plane on trash from the dump than it is on fossil fuel.