Continental Gives Flight to Algae-Jatropha Jet Fuel

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.

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