Continental Airlines became the first US carrier to power a plane using algae as fuel yesterday. The flight, which notably took off from Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport, was also the first in the world to use a dual-engine commercial plane rather than a four-engine aircraft to test a biofuel, according to the BBC. In a 90-minute test flight, a Continental Boeing 737-800 used a 50-50 blend of biofuel (algae mixed with jatropha, a weed that bears oil-producing seeds) and normal fuel to power its number two engine. The aircraft's number one engine operated on 100 percent traditional jet fuel, allowing Continental to compare performance between the biofuel blend and traditional fuel. The biofuel blend is a "drop-in" fuel — no modifications to the aircraft or engine are necessary for the flight to operate. There were no passengers on board.
Continental is the first US airline to use alternative energy to power its jets, other carriers around the world have dabbled in several eco-friendly ways to fly. In February of last year, a Virgin Atlantic test flight used a blend of Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts as fuel. Last month, Air New Zealand completed a test flight powered by jatropha plant oil and standard A1 jet fuel. And later this month, Japan Airlines will launch a test flight using fuel refined from camelina, a flowering plant grown in the high plains of the U.S.
While algae works like other plants in that it converts carbon dioxide into energy, it also lives in environments other plants would reject – such as those filled with sewage. It uses the nutrients in these environments to breakdown carbon, turning it into an oily substance that resembles gasoline, diesel, kerosene and other petroleum based products. In other words, it produces fuel while cleaning the environment.
Critics of biofuel have long objected to the human consequences of growing biofuels – they state that arable lands, which could otherwise be used for food cultivation, are compromised. That's where algae one ups its competitors. Rick Heggernon, policy analyst for ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability points out that algae production doesn't compete with that of food crops because it can be grown in glass tubes anywhere warm and sunny. It yields up to 30 times more fuel than regular energy crops. Algae production is also much safer than petroleum refining because it doesn’t involve drilling or expensive chemicals, and any potential algae spills would not be harmful.
The airline industry has come under intense scrutiny over the last few years, with increasing awareness about global warming. The aviation industry is responsible for two percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, and three percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Recently, apart from a focus on developing alternative fuels, carriers like Emirates Airlines have also been engaged in negotiations with various governments around the world to devise the most efficient routes possible – thereby cutting down on fuel emissions. Last month, Emirates launched what it calls the world's longest green flight, a new service from Dubai to San Francisco that saves an estimated 2,000 gallons of fuel and 30,000 pounds of carbon emissions on the 16-hour direct flight.