Flying on Algae and Weeds

January 8, 2009 Updated: January 8, 2009

Continental Airlines, the nation’s fourth-largest carrier, successfully demonstrated the first North American commercial flight powered in part by renewable energy on Wednesday.

The Boeing 737-800 flight, powered by a mixture of conventional jet fuel and biofuel, took off from Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. The plane flew over the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana and swung back to Houston.

The airport is a main Continental network hub and the flight had no passengers. The flight performed a series of mid-air maneuvers—including engine shutdowns and rapid acceleration—to monitor performance and viability of the fuel.

"This demonstration flight represents another step in Continental's ongoing commitment to fuel efficiency and environmental responsibility," said Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Larry Kellner in a statement. "The technical knowledge we gain today will contribute to a wider understanding of the future for transportation fuels."

Continental’s test was conducted jointly with Boeing Co., GE Aviation/CFM International, and Honeywell’s UOP.

Continental’s biofuel consisted of 50 percent biologically-derived fuel and 50 percent regular jet fuel. The fuel was made from algae and jatropha plants, both sustainable, second-generation sources that do not impact food crops or water resources or contribute to deforestation, the companies conducting the experiment said in a statement.

The experiment verified that biofuel-powered flights could indeed reduce emissions and fuel costs for carriers, many of which were hurt by skyrocketing oil prices. But biofuel-powered commercial flights with passengers are still several years away, at least, and could face supply and production issues.

Although fuel for flights must be certified by international agencies due to safety concerns—it must withstand extreme temperatures—the companies are confident in its viability as an additive to regular jet fuel.

“The biofuel meets and exceeds specifications necessary for jet fuel, including a flash point and a freezing point appropriate for use in aircraft,” Continental said in a statement.

Sapphire Energy CEO Jason Pyle agreed. "Today's flight puts us one step closer to moving away from fossil fuels and energy dependency, and with no impact on the transportation infrastructure, food sources or the environment," he said in an interview with Energy Current News.