Algae may someday become a part of the jet set.
The pond plant is getting a boost from a joint biofuel effort announced Thursday that involves some marquee names in the aviation industry--Airbus and JetBlue Airways--along with International Aero Engines, Honeywell Aerospace, and a second Honeywell company called UOP. The group plans to study ways to make commercial aviation fuels out of so-called second-generation feedstocks such as algae.
Success with algae would be a salve for biofuel boosters who are feeling the sting of a backlash against early hype. Hailed just a few years ago as a potentially quick and easy alternative to petroleum-based products, biofuels derived from common agricultural sources such as corn, soybeans, and palm oil now carry some heavy baggage, including a role in increased food prices and deforestation. Algae as a fast-growing fuel source--and a gobbler of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas--is a notion that's been catching on with a number of start-ups and academic researchers.
But for the moment, biofuel from algae remains an experiment in progress, expensive to produce and still entangled in a number of technical challenges.
That's where the backing of established and heavyweight manufacturers such as Honeywell and Airbus could make a difference. Honeywell says that its UOP subsidiary, a specialist in refining technology, has been working for some time in a DARPA-funded project to convert natural oils and grease into military jet fuel and has commercialized a process for producing "green diesel" from biofeedstocks.
Earlier this year, biodiesel got off the ground in a Virgin Atlantic Airways flight from London to Amsterdam--a first, said Virgin, though it acknowledged that only 20 percent of the fuel burned came from plant sources, with the other 80 percent being standard kerosene-based jet fuel.