Picture this: You've unhappily squeezed yourself into the middle seat of your flight and are busy unfurling your headphones when the pilot comes on over the loudspeaker and announces that today your journey will be powered by 100% American-grown algae. The plane won't fly any differently or emit green exhaust, he'll say with a rehearsed chuckle. It's just part of a plan to make airplane travel a lot more environmentally friendly.
This scenario isn't going to happen on your next trip, but it could become reality in as little as three years. That's certainly the goal of industry leaders such as Continental Airlines. Earlier this year, the Houston-based carrier became the first U.S. airline to power one engine of a Boeing 737 with an exotic concoction of 95% jatropha oil and 5% algae-derived oil. (Internationally, Air New Zealand, Japan Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic have tried similar experiments.) Most American airlines have been wary of the nascent state of the technology and the corporate effort required to get a test off the ground. American, Delta, and United have no current plans related to biofuel beyond expressions of public support. "It's a pretty significant amount of time and resources," admits Darrin Morgan, who runs Boeing's sustainable-aviation-fuel program.
But adopting these plant-based fuels could dramatically reduce airlines' greenhouse-gas emissions. "I don't think the test could have gone any better than it did," insists Leah Raney, Continental's managing director of global environmental affairs. Not that it was easy to pull off. Raney, who has focused on environmental issues during her 12 years at the company, calls the decision to do the test a "leap of faith." When she first met with Boeing executives a year and a half ago, in a small conference room at Continental's headquarters, the idea looked risky. At the time, the refining technology that converts the oil into a fuel suitable for powering a jet engine had just been invented, and no one was positive whether biofuels could simply be pumped into existing engines without modifications.
Despite the uncertainties, Raney felt that biofuels' benefits — both environmental and economic — were too big to ignore. Fuel made from jatropha or algae reduces greenhouse-gas emissions by about 50% compared with standard jet fuel. Biofuels also don't spew soot and other gunk into the air.
Biofuels are even more alluring because they could become a stable and domestically produced petroleum alternative. Jet fuel is not only the airlines' single biggest expense but also their most volatile. It represents between 25% and 40% of total operating costs. "Having a secure, consistently priced fuel supply is very important to our industry," Raney says.
Continental's biofuel bet, as ambitious as it is, will not pay off for years. The realistic estimates are that algae oil could be produced in commercial quantities in three years, according to a spokesperson for Sapphire Energy, which is taking on the challenge. Jatropha oil is even further out — five to six years. "We are still in the early stages of development," says Amanda Pinto, director of business development at Terasol Energy. And if oil prices stay low, biofuels are going to need government subsidies to make them competitive.
Continental is pursuing this goal with refinery-technology firm UOP and Boeing; the latter doesn't benefit directly from a shift to biofuels, but Morgan and his fellow executives believe that the long-term health of the industry depends on it. If the partnership succeeds, petroleum-powered airplanes may fly into aviation's past, right alongside legroom and complimentary baggage checks.
A version of this article appeared in the June 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.