Continental Airlines (NYSE:CAL) today is demonstrating the use of sustainable biofuel to power a commercial aircraft for the first time ever in North America. The demonstration flight -- which is being conducted in partnership with Boeing, GE Aviation/CFM International, and Honeywell's UOP -- marks the first sustainable biofuel demonstration flight by a commercial carrier using a two-engine aircraft, a Boeing 737-800 equipped with CFM International CFM56-7B engines.
"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. "The technical knowledge we gain today will contribute to a wider understanding of the future for transportation fuels."
The biofuel blend includes components derived from algae and jatropha plants, both sustainable, second-generation sources that do not impact food crops or water resources or contribute to deforestation. The algae oil has been provided by Sapphire Energy, and the jatropha oil by Terasol Energy. This is the first time a commercial carrier will power a flight using fuel derived in part from algae.
Continental's Boeing 737-800, tail number 516, will depart from and return to Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport operating under a specially-issued "Experimental" aircraft type certificate, and will carry no passengers.
During the flight, which will last approximately two hours, Continental test pilots will engage the aircraft in a number of normal and non-normal flight maneuvers, such as mid-flight engine shutdown and re-start, and power accelerations and decelerations. A Continental engineer will record flight data onboard.
The flight will operate with a biofuel blend, which consists of 50 percent biologically-derived fuel and 50 percent traditional jet fuel, in the No. 2 engine. This biofuel blend will result in a significant net decrease in carbon emissions relative to traditional jet fuel, as both jatropha and algae consume carbon during their lifecycles.
The aircraft's No. 1 engine will operate on 100 percent traditional jet fuel, allowing Continental to compare performance between the biofuel blend and traditional fuel. As Continental has worked with Boeing, GE Aviation/CFM and UOP for more than nine months to carefully evaluate and test the biofuel in engines on the ground, no difference in performance is expected.
The biofuel is a "drop-in" fuel, and no modifications to the aircraft or engine are necessary for the flight to operate. The biofuel meets and exceeds specifications necessary for jet fuel, including a flash point and a freezing point appropriate for use in aircraft.
Following the flight, Continental will participate with its partners in post-flight engine analysis to ensure that the effect on the engine and aircraft, in addition to performance, is substantively no different between biofuel and traditional fuel.
"Through their leadership Continental Airlines is helping aviation pioneer a greener, more diverse fuel supply for the future," said Billy Glover, managing director, Environmental Strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "Having a broader, more sustainable fuel portfolio is vital to our industry and demonstrating the viability of these renewable fuels addresses that goal, while potentially helping to further reduce environmental impacts."
"UOP's goal with renewable technology is to produce real fuels that perform as well as or better than their petroleum-based alternatives and that leverage the existing fuel infrastructure and fleet technology to lower capital costs and simplify adoption," said General Manager of UOP Renewable Energy and Chemicals Jennifer Holmgren. "With our proven technology and the commitment of aviation leaders like Continental and Boeing, sustainable biofuels for aviation are a real near-term option. We believe that production levels could reach hundreds of millions of gallons per year by 2012."
"We still have a lot of work to do in terms testing various biofuels but we are very pleased with, and encouraged by, the results we have achieved to date," said Eric Bachelet, president and CEO of CFM International. "What we have found is that the second generation fuel being tested today comes closer to simulating the characteristics of traditional jet fuel in terms of engine performance and operability, such as fuel consumption, engine start and other parameters. We have also found that engines running this mix emit less smoke even than those fueled by traditional jet fuel."
"The simple combination of sunlight, CO2 and algae to produce a carbon-neutral, renewable fuel source has the potential to profoundly change the petrochemical landscape forever," said Jason Pyle, Sapphire Energy CEO. "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."
"We are excited to be pioneering the development of bio-based jet fuels along with Continental Airlines," said Sanjay Pingle, president, Terasol Energy. "Jatropha is one of several next generation fuel sources that we are working on in order to develop sustainable, scalable and renewable alternatives to petroleum-based products."