First algae-fueled commercial airliner takes flight

United Airlines sponsors first commercial flight of a plane powered by biofuels created by Solazyme, using a Honeywell process.

United became the first commercial airline airline today to operate a passenger flight powered by a combination of biofuel and petroleum-derived diesel fuel. The split was 60 percent to 40 percent, respectively.

Flight 1403 from Houston to Chicago, a Boeing 737-800, comes just four months after the approval of renewable fuels for commercial usage. The biofuel used for the flight was processed by San Francisco-based Solazyme, using algae-derived oil reprocessed with technology from Honeywell. United, which is a subsidiary of United Continental Holdings, has signed a letter of intent to purchase 20 million gallons of the algae-derived fuel annually starting as early as 2014.

Said Pete McDonald, executive vice president of United and chief operations officer:

"United is taking a significant step forward to advance the use of environmentally responsible and cost-efficient alternative fuels. Sustainable biofuels, produce on a large scale at an economically viable price, can one day play a meaningful role in power everyone's trip on an airplane."

The plan to use Solazyme's biofuels is part of United's Eco-Skies sustainability program. Since 1994, the company has improved its fuel efficiency by 32 percent. Together, United and Continental already use 3,600 alternative fuel or zero emissions ground vehicles.

The new fuel used in Monday's flight is what is referred to as "Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids" (HEFA) fuel. The Solazyme brand of this fuel is called Solajet, and it has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration as a drop-in replacement for petroleum-based fuels. That means no engine modifications are required and no special action is required on the part of the pilots.

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