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Biofuel flights: How farm waste could get you where you're going this summer

United Airlines has invested $30 million into a biofuel company to help fuel their planes.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
A United Airlines jet departs Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.

United Airlines announced on Tuesday that the company will be increasing its use of biofuels, beginning this summer, through a $30 million investment in Fulcrum Bioenergy. Select flights departing from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), will contain a mixture of biofuels and traditional jet fuel. United joins Virgin Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Southwest Airlines, and British Airways in airline companies that have invested in biofuels to power their planes.

Flights from LAX to San Francisco will be the ones partially powered by biofuel, delivered to United Airlines by AltAir. The two companies have collaborated since 2009, according to a United press release. AltAir will build a refinery in Paramount, Calif., which will convert “sustainable feedstocks, like non-edible natural oils and agricultural wastes” into biofuel, according to United Airlines.

United has said that the cost of biofuel is “comparable” to the price of traditional jet fuel. Fulcrum asserts that its technology can cut an airline’s carbon emissions by 80 percent, if compared to the use of traditional jet fuel. United will initially experience a 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions on a life cycle basis through biofuel replacing a portion of traditional jet fuel.

Other alternative energy sources like fuel cells or solar power are currently not feasible for air travel and concerns about biofuel have centered primarily on cost and maintaining a reliable source. While the terms of the agreement between United Airlines and Fulcrum Biofuels have not been disclosed, James Macias, Fulcrum’s chief executive, has said that the company is able to produce biofuel for less than $1 per gallon. This compares to traditional jet fuel prices, which have fluctuated between $1.40-$2.30 per gallon since November 2014, and currently stand at $1.67 per gallon.

However, the overall life cycle impact of carbon emissions is dependent upon a large number of factors, according to research conducted in 2008 by Hsin Min Wong of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The study compared the greenhouse gas emissions produced by alternative jet fuels and traditional jet fuels. The research concluded that, “alternative jet fuels from biomass offer substantial life-cycle GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions compared to conventional jet fuel, and that is true only if land use change emissions were negligible." The analysis of the study goes onto say that, "Direct or indirect land use changes from the use of biomass feedstocks (particularly food crops) could potentially increase life-cycle GHG emissions to levels several times above that of conventional jet fuel.”

A flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco will contribute about 0.05 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per passenger, according to a carbon footprint calculator. If United is able to successfully reduce carbon emissions for these flights, this number could be cut by 50 percent to 0.025 metric tons per passenger for a flight that length.

Numerous airline companies have been experimenting with biofuel for over seven years. In 2008, Virgin Airlines became the first airline to operate a commercial flight on biofuels, and founder Richard Branson has also developed the “Carbon War Room” which aims to reduce carbon emissions on a mass scale. The Boeing 747 flew from London to Amsterdam with 20 percent biofuel in one of the four engines. The flight served as a “viable demonstration” of the possibility of using biofuel in place of traditional fuel. United’s flights from LAX to San Francisco plan to use a fuel mixture that is 30 percent biofuel and 70 traditional jet fuel.

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