United to use biofuels on LAX flights in 2014

United Airlines will soon use relatively environmentally friendly biofuels from Los Angeles International Airport, likely derived from materials from outside the food chain.

The new fuel will be produced as part of a joint venture between Seattle-based AltAir Fuels and a yet to be named oil refinery near LAX. United will buy 15 million gallons over a three-year period beginning in 2014, with the airline having the option to buy even more fuel.

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John Williams, a spokesman for AltAir, told me the company has not decided which natural materials it will use to produce the fuel. But he said biofuels commonly come from algae, canola oil and something called camelina oil.

Williams said whatever is used will be considerably better for the environment than petroleum.

“Petroleum contains carbon that has been stored underground for millions of years,” Williams said.  “When you burn it, you release carbons into air. The fuels in this case are expected to reduce the carbon footprint by at least 50 percent if not more. ”

The biofuels will be blended with regular jet fuel, Williams said, and there will be no difference in aircraft performance.

“At the molecular and chemical level there’s no difference in the fuel that goes into the plane,” he said. “The only difference is where it came from.”

Williams acknowledged that the contract is for relatively little fuel, but he called it an important first step.

“it was not too long ago that people said you’ll never be able to fly a jet on renewable fuel,” he said.

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