Airplane fueler Monte Hawkins filled the tank in the wing of a United Continental Holdings jet Monday morning with fuel derived partly from algae as the plane prepared to take off into history.
The Boeing 737-800’s flight from Houston was the first by a U.S. carrier to include passengers on a plane powered by a blend that included algae-based biofuel along with conventional petroleum-based jet fuel.
The flight left Bush Intercontinental Airport bound for Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Chicago is the headquarters of Continental parent United Continental Holdings.
United Continental Holdings estimates that the biofuel blend on the flight Monday reduced carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equal to what would come from the exhaust of a car driven 30,000 miles.
Solazyme, based in South San Francisco, worked with Honeywell technology to develop the algae oil that was refined into jet fuel for the flight. United plans to buy 20 million gallons of the oil a year from Solazyme beginning in 2014. The product, refined near Houston, is put into a mix of 40 percent algae-based and 60 percent petroleum-based fuel.
Solazyme officials said the company sold the fuel to United at the same cost as regular jet fuel.
Continental and United merged last year but continue to operate as separate carriers until they receive a single operating certificate from Federal Aviation Administration.
Mixing the biofuels with conventional fuel requires no modifications to the plane, said Pete McDonald, United’s executive vice president and chief operations officer. He said passengers would not notice any difference.
Shenandoah resident Jeff Ashley was one of 154 passengers on the aircraft. He approved of the use of biofuels, but he doesn’t want taxpayers to have to subsidize such efforts.
“I think it’s great,” Ashley said after hearing a news conference about the biofuel flight and before boarding the Chicago-bound plane. “If it helps us become more independent as far as oil and gas, then I think it’s good.”
United isn’t alone in making the move to biofuels. Alaska Airlines announced Monday it will power 75 commercial passenger flights with biofuels starting Wednesday.
Alaska sister carrier Horizon Air then will operate select flights between Seattle and the two cities over the next few weeks using a 20 percent blend of sustainable biofuel made from used cooking oil.