Continental test flight achieves a number of firsts, including the debut of algae as a jet engine fuel

Continental test flight achieves a number of firsts, including the debut of algae as a jet engine fuel | Continental Airlines, Boeing, UOP, CFM International, Sapphire Energy, Terasol Energy, jatropha, algae, biofuels

Continental Airlines Boeing 737-800 being readied for test flight (photo: CFM International)
Thu 9 Jan 2009 – Continental Airlines successfully demonstrated the use of algae as an aviation fuel yesterday (Jan 8) in a two-hour test flight from George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas, reports Jim Lane. The flight was the first test of biofuels by a North American airline, the first to utilize algae as a biofuel feedstock, and the first biofuels test flight of a two-engine jet. With high production yields and energy content, algae is seen by many as providing the biggest potential in meeting the future jet biofuel demands of the airline industry.
The Boeing 737-800, powered by CFM56-7B engines, operated with a 50% biofuel blend in the right side engine during the flight, which included a full power take off, a climb to 25,000 feet including a fuel pump switch-off, a cruise at 37,000 feet; deceleration/acceleration, descent, engine restart without starter; engine restart with starter, and a simulated landing and go-around. Preliminary data showed that the engines performed as predicted, and the test flight was completed without a hitch.
The test flight captain, Rich Jankowski, reported afterwards that the engine containing the biofuel blend burned slightly less fuel than the other containing the full Jet A conventional fuel.
The biofuel for the flight was created by UOP from jatropha provided by Terasol Energy and algae supplied by Sapphire Energy. The fuel mix in the No. 1 engine was made up of 50% Jet A, 47.5% jatropha and 2.5% algae.
The team that participated in the support of the flight included the US Air Force, the FAA, Yale University, CAAFI, the Natural Resources Defense Council and MIT, in addition to the fuel, engine and aircraft partners.
“All of us are working together, doing our part to move aviation biofuels forward,” said Billy Glover, Managing Director of Environmental Performance for Boeing. Boeing has arranged for three test flights to date of aviation biofuels: the B20 747 test with Virgin Atlantic in February 2008, the December 30 Air New Zealand B50 test of a jatropha-based biofuel and yesterday’s Continental flight.
Eric Bachelet, President of engine manufacturer CFM International (a joint venture of General Electric and Snecma), said his company has been following a three-step process in reducing aviation emissions, including technical upgrades to the current generation of engines; new engines to meet aggressive goals for noise, emissions and fuel efficiency; and support of partnerships to test and deploy biofuels. Bachelet commented that CFM had conducted 40 hours of ground tests with UOP’s biofuel prior to the flight test.
“What we have found is that the second generation fuel 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,” he said. “We have also found that engines running this mix emit less smoke even than those fuelled by traditional jet fuel.”
Jennifer Holmgren, General Manager for UOP’s Renewable Energy and Chemicals unit, commented that UOP and all the partners “were united by a common vision” and had been searching for fuels that were a drop-in replacement for current aviation fuel – requiring no engine or aircraft modifications, or additional infrastructure – and economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. “We now have a fuel that meets that criteria,” she said.
Holmgren added that UOP expects to license its fuel technology by mid-2009, and said that commercial aviation flights would be powered by biofuels by 2012, believing that production levels by then could reach “hundreds of millions” of gallons per year. Her comments were echoed last week by Air New Zealand management, who said they expected the airline’s biofuel usage to reach 10% by 2013.
None of the partners would be drawn to comment on specific biofuel consumption targets by 2012. “There’s a technical side, a production side and an economic side,” said Continental’s CEO Larry Kellner, “Today is about the technical side. It is a small step but an important one.” He noted that the aviation industry had moved from a single engine test on a 747 using a 20% biofuel blend, to a 50% blend test using one engine on a two-engine aircraft, in less than one year. “That’s real progress.”
The algae oil for the flight was provided by Sapphire Energy, which was recently ranked second in the Biofuels Digest ‘50 Hottest Companies in Bioenergy’ list.
“We are excited to be a part of an historic day,” said Sapphire’s VP for Corporate Affairs, Tim Zenk, while showing algae oil to a packed crowd of media, aviation executives and observers that filleded a Continental Express hangar in Houston to witness the flight. Sapphire and other partners singled out Boeing as the driving force behind the series of biofuel flights. Sapphire’s team of geneticists and process engineers are aiming at drop-in fuel production themselves, but worked as an oil-providing partner on the Continental test flight while the Sapphire facility in New Mexico is under development.
“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’s CEO.
Sanjay Pingle, President of Terasol Energy, which sourced and supplied the jatropha for both the Continental and Air New Zealand flights, commented: “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.”
Depending on a number of factors, Pingle reported that jatropha can yield around 600 to 675 gallons of oil from five tons of seeds that can be produced per hectare.
The next test flight will take place on January 30 in Tokyo, when Japan Airlines tests a 50% biofuels blend in one of the Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines of a Boeing 747-300. In that test, JAL will use 50% conventional Jet A, 42% camelina, nearly 8% jatropha, and under 1% algae. The camelina oil will be provided by Sustainable Oils.
Jim Lane, is Editor of US-based Biofuels Digest, the widely read and respected daily international newsletter. To sign up for a free email subscription go to
Left to right: Captain Rich Jankowski, pilot in command of the biofuel demonstration flight; Larry Kellner, Chairman and CEO, Continental Airlines; and Captain Joe O’Neill, first officer on the biofuel flight. Photo taken immediately prior to the flight (photo: Continental)
Continental Captains O’Neill (left) and Jankowski meet the press following the flight (photo: Continental)
Partners in the Continental test flight programme meet the press at yesterday’s event (photo: Continental)
The CFM56-7B engine on biofuel test at GE facilities in Peebles, Ohio. This particular test programme was about 8 hours, but CFM has completed a total of three biofuels ground tests for a total of more than 40 hours. Prior to the Virgin Atlantic biofuel demonstration flight in February 2008, which was powered by CF6-80C2 engines, a CFM56-7B engine was ground tested at Peebles first (photo: CFM International)

Graph showing yields of oil from different types of biofuels, including jatropha and algae (source: Boeing)



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