United Airlines recently used jet fuel made from agricultural waste such as corncobs and corn stalks in a normal passenger flight. Virent, a Madison, WI–based startup, made the fuel and is known for making bio-based plastics and other bio-based products, the Wisconsin State Journal reports. Virent is a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corporation and uses what it calls its BioForming process to transform agricultural waste products such as corncobs and corn stalks into a compound that has the same chemical composition as both gasoline and jet fuel.
Dave Kettner, Virent’s president since 2019 and general counsel, said that the jet fuel burns cleaner than conventional petroleum and is made from a fully renewable resource. He was also aboard the flight.
Over 100 people were flown from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington D.C.’s Reagan National Airport. Along with Kettner and United CEO Scott Kirby, other prominent passengers included business leaders, government officials, and public figures.
In a statement, Kirby spoke of how United Airlines is leading from the front in terms of climate change action. He added that the flight was a milestone for efforts to decarbonize the airline industry.
“United continues to lead from the front when it comes to climate change action. Today’s flight is not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we’re demonstrating the … impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.”
The flight, which took place earlier this month, demonstrated the effectiveness of Virent’s fuel after an earlier stage of development in which United conducted a test flight without passengers in October. United piloted both aircraft with hundreds of gallons of Virent fuel in one engine while having the same amount of a conventional compound in the other. Both airplane engines were operated full time to show that there wasn’t any noticeable difference in performance.
United Airlines noted that this was done to prove that Virent’s fuel works just as well as petroleum-based fuel, and will help set the stage for other airlines to reduce their carbon footprint. Kettner shared that the biggest benefit of the test is that it showed the aerospace industry along with governments around the world that renewable aviation fuel is a reality. For now, airlines are only allowed to use fuels containing up to 50% renewable materials. Virent’s product is 100% renewable.
Boeing senior vice president of sales and marketing, Ihssane Mounir, who was also a passenger, said, “No one entity can decarbonize aviation alone and it will require partnerships like this to ensure aviation is safe … for future generations.”
United operated the passenger flight in partnership with Boeing, Viren, and World Energy, a Boston-based company and the only commercial producer of renewable aviation fuels to date.
Virent hasn’t commercialized fully just yet and is still in its research and development phases, which are being funded by Marathon. It took a few months to make the fuel used in both flights at the company’s current plant, but if it had a larger commercial space, it would have taken a few minutes!
However, the component of the fuel is still undergoing an approval process through ASTM International, which develops standards for several types of products and services. The reason for this, Kettner explained, is that the fuel is 100% drop-in. This means that significant changes to a jet engine’s infrastructure aren’t needed for Virent’s plant-based compound to be effective.
He further explained that the fuel can easily replace its petroleum counterpart with a more than 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel, which is described as synthesized aromatic kerosene, is produced by converting plant sugars into a type of oil using a multistep process.
Kettner pointed out that there is a lot of work to be done before Virent can monetize the sale of its products, but he’s optimistic that the company will make announcements about commercializing within the next few months. United Airlines, which partnered with Virent due to its technology and interest in proving that renewable fuels work, has a goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 100% by 2050. “The tech is there. The product is there. The product is safe,” Kettner added.
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