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OM in the News: United Turns to Farm Waste for Jet Power

June 30, 2015
Airlines are under growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions and lower costs

Airlines are under growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions and lower costs

“Sometime this summer,” writes The New York Times (June 30, 2015), “a United Airlines flight will take off from Los Angeles for San Francisco using fuel generated from farm waste and oils derived from animal fats.” For passengers, little will be different — the engines will still roar, the seats will still be cramped — but for the airlines and the biofuels industry, the flight will represent a long-awaited milestone: the first time a domestic airline operates regular passenger flights using an alternative jet fuel.

For years, biofuels have been seen as an important part of the solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And airlines, with their concentration around airports and use of the same kind of fuel, have been seen as a promising customer in a biofuels industry. Airlines have every reason to adapt, not only to reduce pollution but also to lower what is usually their biggest cost: jet fuel.

United is announcing a $30 million investment in one of the largest producers of aviation biofuels, Fulcrum BioEnergy. Fulcrum has developed a technology that turns household trash into sustainable aviation fuel that can be blended directly with traditional jet fuels. It is building a biofuel refinery in Nevada, and has plans for 5 more plants around the country. The technology can cut an airline’s carbon emissions by 80% compared with traditional jet fuel.

United’s deal is one of many that airlines are making. Alaska Airlines aims to use biofuels at least at one of its airports by 2020, and Southwest just announced it would purchase 3 million gallons a year of jet fuel made from wood residues. Last year, British Airways joined with Solena Fuels to build a biofuel refinery near Heathrow Airport. The airlines seem to have little choice. Unlike automakers, they cannot turn to other options like electrification.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is sustainability so important to the airlines?

2. What other measures can airlines take to become “greener”?

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