Continental Airlines announces first-ever US biofuel flight will take place in early January
Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800 (photo: P. Alejandro Diaz)
Fri 12 Dec 2008 – Continental Airlines will conduct a biofuel-powered demonstration flight on January 7 from Houston, Texas. Not only will it be the first US flight to use a biofuel blend, it will be the first using a narrowbody twin-engined aircraft, a CFM56-7B-powered Boeing 737-800, and the first use of algae as a biojet fuel. The fuel to be used in one of the two engines will be a blend of 50 percent traditional jet fuel and 50 percent biofuel sourced from algae and jatropha. Meanwhile, Air New Zealand has rescheduled its jatropha-based biofuel flight to December 30.
Continental has partnered on the nine-month project with Boeing, CFM International and refining technology developer UOP, a Honeywell company. The algae-based biofuel has been supplied by California-based Sapphire Energy, with the jatropha provided by Terasol, which has also supplied the jatropha for the Air New Zealand biofuel test flight.
Sanjay Pingle, CEO of Terasol, confirmed the source of the jatropha for both of the flights was India and East Africa (primarily Tanzania), and met the following sustainability criteria:
·not grown on any land suitable for food crops;
·no irrigation – cultivated using natural rainfall only;
·not cultivated using any child labour;
·cultivated primarily by small farmers as a supplement to normal income;
·no deforestation involved in the cultivation; and
·primarily grown on degraded pasture land or as a 'border crop'.
A spokesperson for Sapphire Energy said the company’s proprietary refining process converted photosynthetic algae oil into an oil rich in triglycerides and Free Fatty Acids which UOP then refined into jet fuel through its ecofining process. “Sapphire’s business is not simply to create algal oils; we create a refined product that can be used directly in a refinery, ecofinery or crude pipeline,” she added.
Sapphire Energy was founded in May 2007 and this September announced it had raised $100 million in venture capital from investors such as the UK’s Wellcome Trust; ARCH Venture Partners; Venrock, the Rockefeller family’s venture capital arm; and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment. The company also said that it hoped to be producing commercial quantities of what it describes as ‘Green Crude’ in three to five years and expects to achieve a per barrel price of $50 to $80.
Operating under a specially-issued ‘Experimental’ aircraft type certificate, the passenger-free 737-800 will be crewed by Continental’s own FAA-licensed test pilots. The flight test plan calls for operating the No. 2, right-hand engine on the B50 biofuel blend, including power accelerations and decelerations, in-flight engine shut-down and restart, together with other flight manoeuvres that include both normal and non-normal procedures. Numerous flight parameters will be recorded, and a post-flight engine analysis will contribute to findings which the project team expect to show that the biofuel blend is readily substitutable for regular Jet A fuel without any degradation of performance or safety, and with a net reduction in carbon emissions.
“This flight represents another step in Continental’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and identifying sustainable, long-term fuel solutions for the aviation industry,” said Larry Kellner, the airline’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer.
Continental claims that its aircraft fleet consumes on average 18 gallons of fuel to fly one mainline revenue passenger 1,000 miles, representing a 35% reduction in fuel burn and emissions since 1997, due, it says, to a $12 billion investment in more fuel-efficient aircraft and the streamlining of operational procedures. It has also reduced nitrogen oxide emissions by 75% from ground equipment at the carrier’s Houston hub through switching to electric ground services equipment and other new technology.
Other green projects include the construction of environmentally-responsible airport facilities, the testing of alternative fuels in ground service equipment, a passenger carbon offsetting programme based on the actual fuel burn of the Continental fleet and an expansive recycling programme.
Meanwhile, it has been reported that Air New Zealand’s B747-400 biofuel test flight, which will use a 50/50 jatropha-based biofuel blended with Jet A-1, will now take place on December 30. It was originally scheduled for December 3 but was postponed following the fatal crash of one of the airline’s A320 aircraft during a test flight off the French coast on November 28.