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Continental Airlines completed a 90-minute test flight this afternoon using biofuel derived from algae and jatropha. The twin-engine Boeing 737-800 flew out of Houston with one engine operating on a 50-50 blend of biofuels and conventional jet fuel, and the other using all conventional fuel for […]

continentallogoContinental Airlines completed a 90-minute test flight this afternoon using biofuel derived from algae and jatropha. The twin-engine Boeing 737-800 flew out of Houston with one engine operating on a 50-50 blend of biofuels and conventional jet fuel, and the other using all conventional fuel for comparison. Although biofuel-powered test flights took off last year — beginning with Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic run and culminating with Air New Zealand’s trial last week — Continental’s flight today represents the first biofuels test in the U.S. with a commercial jet.

After swooping over the Gulf of Mexico toward Louisiana, the Boeing returned to Houston’s international airport at 1:45 p.m. Boeing spokesperson Terrance Scott told us the engine with the biofuels mix ran more efficiently than the control engine: “It blew it out of the water,” he said. Continental officials told reporters on the ground that the biofuels-mix engine burned 3,600 pounds of fuel, compared with 3,700 pounds of fuel for the all-conventional engine, the Houston Chronicle reports. That means the biofuels-mix saved a whopping 100 pounds of fuel, or 0.03 2.7 percent of the regular load. (Update: We made an error in the original math, and have corrected it.) (Scott said density differences between the two fuels would not account for the savings.)

“We have been working very diligently to reduce our carbon footprint over the last 10 years,” Continental’s managing director of global environmental affairs told Bloomberg today. But do all of these test runs really bring the airline industry any closer to cleaning up its act? Last February, when Virgin made a splash with its biofuel flight, it drew criticism for two reasons: It used the wrong kind of biofuel (derived from coconut oil and babassu nuts) and not enough of it (only 5 percent of the total fuel mix).

Air New Zealand and Continental, meanwhile, both turned to startups — Terasol Energy and Sapphire Energy — for second-generation of biofuels, avoiding the food-fuel mire that befell Branson. They also stepped the proportion of biofuels up to more respectable double-digits. But as much as pond-scum jet fuel grew in 2008, a yield of only 0.03 2.7 percent fuel savings means there’s hasty work to be done if the aviation industry is to achieve its goal of carbon-neutral growth.

  1. [...] Commercial aviation keeps dabbling with biofuels; Continental’s two-hour algae-and-jatropha-fueled test flight is just the latest, in the L.A. Times. But despite all the hype, biofuels don’t really mean much fuel savings for aircraft, notes Earth2Tech. [...]

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  2. its greats..

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  3. The math in this story is incorrect. A 100 lbs reduction in fuel consumption out of 3700 lbs consumed during the flight is a 3% improvement in fuel economy, not .03% as the article states. A 3% reduction in fuel consumption is highly significant — aircraft manufacturers spend millions of dollars to achieve 3% fuel economy improvements.

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  4. Josie Garthwaite Thursday, January 8, 2009

    Math – Thanks for pointing this out. We have updated the post with the correct figure, 2.7 percent.

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  5. And even if that improvement is small, if Algae biofuel ends up being sustainable or carbon neutral or whatever corn ethanol isn’t, then that 50% blend is also vastly important.

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  6. [...] of algae-based biofuels, while Houston’s Continental Airlines took to the wild biofuel yonder earlier this month, using a blend of jatropha and [...]

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  7. [...] Posted by AllenCaron on March 27, 2009 On December 30, 2008, Air New Zealand completed a two-hour test flight using a 50/50 mixture of jatropha oil and Jet A1 in one of the four Rolls-Royce RB211 engines of a Boeing 747-400 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5g5Z3GTNwk). The flight was a success and the airline has announced plans to use the fuel for 10% of its needs by 2013. Jatropha was chosen as the candidate for the test as it passed the three rigorous criteria set by Air New Zealand: social, technical and commercial. That is, it is environmentally sustainable and will not compete with existing food resources, it is a drop-in replacement for traditional jet fuel and is as good as the product used today and, finally, it is cost competitive with existing fuel supplies (http://www.airnewzealand.co.uk/aboutus/biofuel-test/default.htm). Furthermore, Continental Airlines undertook the first biofuel-powered test flight in the U.S. on January 7th this year. They used a mixture of algae/jatropha fuel and conventional fuel in one engine of a 737-800 for a 90 minute flight out of Houston. According to Terrance Scott, the engine with the biofuels mix ran even more efficiently than the control engine (http://earth2tech.com/2009/01/07/continental-gives-flight-to-algae-jatropha-jet-fuel/)! [...]

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  8. [...] Terrance Scott, the engine with the biofuels mix ran even more efficiently than the control engine (http://earth2tech.com/2009/01/07/continental-gives-flight-to-algae-jatropha-jet-fuel/)! CAL closed at $10.26 today, vs a 52-week high of [...]

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  9. [...] On January 7, 2009, Continental Airlines flew a successful demonstration out of Houston in partnership with Boeing, GE Aviation/CFM International, and Honeywell’s UOP. One of the Boeing 737’s two engines was powered with standard A1 aviation fuel. The other ran on a 50-50 mix of standard A1 fuel and a biofuel made from algae and jatropha.  READ MORE [...]

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  10. [...] and has been estimated to cost around $43 per barrel. This flight was followed, on January 7th by a Continental Airlines flight which used a 737-800, and a mix of oil from jatropha and algae. The flight saw a 3% savings in fuel [...]

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