Today marks the first U.S. commercial airline flight powered by biofuels. United Airlines has selected a Boeing 737-800 for the route from Houston to Chicago. The plane will be powered by Solajet, a fuel blend of 60 percent petroleum-based jet fuel and 40 percent biofuel produced by California-based algae producer Solazyme.
Biofuels appear poised to play an increasing role in the transportation sector. Biofuels have traditionally included liquid fuels like ethanol (derived from corn or cellulosic sources) and biodiesel. Biofuels typically rely on plants or algae to convert solar energy into chemicals that can be refined and modified to produce usable fuels. The wood (biomass) burned in hearths and stoves around the world represents a very basic biofuel, but today's advanced biofuels can involve significantly more technology. The U.S. Department of Energy is funding research and development efforts to produce "drop-in biofuels", which can be used as additives or even replacements for liquid fuels like
gasoline, diesel and jet fuels -- without requiring consumers or distributors to modify their engines and fuel distribution networks.
United Airlines is not the only carrier to take its biofuels experimentation live this week. On Wednesday, Alaska Airlines will fly two commercial flights from its bases in Seattle and
Portland, Oregon, to Washington, D.C. Alaska Airlines' jets will be powered by a fuel blend composed of 20% biofuels from used cooking oil. Alaska Airlines chose Dynamic Fuels as its supplier; Dynamic Fuels is a joint venture between food product giant Tyson Foods and synthetic fuel producer Syntroleum.