United will fly a jet from LA to SF using animal waste

Remember the poo bus? Now meet its high flying cousin from across the pond. It doesn't have the same somewhat scandalous artwork of the UK Bio-Bus, but it will be running, or in this case, flying, on the same principles. Or the same waste materials, for that matter. United Airlines is planning to make a flight starting from Los Angeles International Airport to San Francisco running on fuel produced from farm waste and animal fat. Which is just a more sensational way of saying "biofuel".

Whatever savings ground vehicles are trying to make in moving away from traditional fuel and their harmful effects are easily nullified by the amount that a single commercial jet gobbles up. According to United's figures, in 2014 it used up 3.9 billion gallons of jet fuel. Not only is it disastrous for the environment, it is equally disastrous to United's coffers, costing it $11.6 billion in one year alone.

The need for biofuel is fueled, pardon the pun, not only by eco-consciousness but also by government pressure, which, in turn, is fueled by eco-consciousness. Airlines and plane makers are increasingly being told to look for alternative sources of fuel. Unfortunately for them, unlike cars, they can't turn to purely electric operations. And so waste material it is!

For this endeavor United will be partnering with Fulcrum BioEnergy, a partnership strengthened by an investment to the tune of $30 million. The plan is to mix 30 percent biofuel with 70 percent normal fuel in four to five flights for the first two weeks. After that, the mixture's proportions will be increased. For passengers, there should be no change in the experience and, unless they've been informed beforehand, probably wouldn't mind either.

While switching to biofuel is good and ideal, there are still obstacles that need to be addressed. Biofuels are not exactly cheap at this point in time. Fulcrum, however, could potentially sell its biofuel for less than a dollar per gallon. Potentially, because United apparently bought it at $2.11 a gallon in the first quarter. The other problem is, somewhat ironically, the sustainability of biofuel. There is still some unease regarding how companies like Fulcrum can reliably provide a constant supply for fuel-hungry jets like United's. Fulcrum does have 20-year contracts with waste management companies, but it is still unknown how much could be produced from those, especially once jet biofuel fully takes flight.

SOURCE: New York Times