That Smell of French Fries Is from the Engines, Not the Guy in Seat 36B

Illustration for article titled That Smell of French Fries Is from the Engines, Not the Guy in Seat 36B

Mention "biofuel" and the average American driver will likely only think of a car that perpetually smells of Burger King. But, these fuels are making quick inroads to the aviation industry—both Alaska and United Airlines have announced today that some flights' fuel supplies include non-petroleum alternatives.


Alaska Airlines announced today that it is testing a 20 percent blend of biofuel derived from cooking oil to power 75 flights over the next few weeks. These flights will travel between Seattle and Portland, and Seattle and DC—Alaska jets will make the maiden voyages with Horizon Air, Alaska's sister airline, performing the remainder. Alaska estimates this will reduce the flights' greenhouse gas emissions by 134 metric tons, the equivalent of 26 cars' yearly emissions. And, if the entire Alaska fleet flew on this 20 percent mix, it'd save as much as removing 64,000 cars from American highways.

As Alaska Air Group Chairman and CEO Bill Ayer said in a press release,

Commercial airplanes are equipped and ready for biofuels. They will enable us to fly cleaner, foster job growth in a new industry, and can insulate airlines from the volatile price swings of conventional fuel to help make air travel more economical. What we need is an adequate, affordable and sustainable supply. To the biofuels industry, we say: If you build it, we will buy it.

And Alaska isn't the only one buying. United Airlines also announced today that it is testing biofuel technology, however, not the kind that smells of French fries. Instead, it is utilizing a 40/60 mix of algae-derived oil and diesel jet fuel, respectively. The algae-oil, known as "Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids" (HEFA) fuel, was processed by San Francisco-based Solazyme using technology from Honeywell. Flight 1403—from Houston Bush Intercontinental to Chicago O'Hare—marked the technology's maiden flight and distinguishes United as "the first U.S. airline to fly passengers using a blend of sustainable, advanced biofuel and traditional petroleum-derived jet fuel," according to a press release.

United, at least, appears serious about making the jump to biofuels. The airline has already signed a letter of intent to purchase 20 million barrels of biofuel annually beginning in 2014. We'll have to see if the rest of the industry can or will adopt similar technologies on a large scale given their razor-thin margins. However, even that doesn't necessarily guarantee biofuel's wide-spread adoption in other transportation industries, such as big rigs and railways. But if it does, the environmental impact of cross-country shipping—be it people or pallets—could be greatly reduced. [Alaska Airlines - Reuters - USA Today via TechFlash - ZD Net]

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Razor-thing margins? I don't believe airlines margins are nearly razor-thin at all just based on their ticket prices varying so widely, just from the date.