United Airlines Invests in Algae-Based SAF Producer

The technology would convert water-based plants into sustainable aviation fuel.

United Airlines is investing $5 million into technology that will convert microalgae into sustainable aviation fuel. [Courtesy: United Airlines]

United Airlines is expanding its commitment to "going green" by investing $5 million into technology that will convert microalgae into sustainable aviation fuel. 

As part of the investment, which is part of United's recently announced UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, the airline is partnering with Viridos, a biofuel company that specializes in the bioengineering of microalgae to accelerate the amount of oil that can be produced from it. This oil is used to create SAF. 

"Based on current estimates, SAF created by Viridos' algae oil is expected to have a 70 percent reduced carbon footprint on a lifecycle basis when compared to traditional jet fuel," United said in a statement.

The airline noted that microalgae "is an abundant and scalable resource that can be grown and harvested without impacting the food supply chain."

Viridos said it has already achieved seven times the oil productivity compared to typical wild-type algae.

"As the global aviation leader in SAF production investment United remains committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions, without relying on traditional carbon offsets, by 2050," United Airlines Ventures president Mike Leskinen said. "SAF is proven, scalable, and the best tool we have to reduce our carbon emissions from flying, but we face a significant shortage of available feedstock. Viridos' algae-based biofuel technology has the potential to help solve our supply problem without the need for farmland or other agricultural resources, and marks our inaugural investment in our new cross-industry UAV Sustainable Flight Fund."

Viridos algae are grown in vessels containing seawater, the fuel manufacturer said. This allows contained deployment in hot and dry locations without taxing scarce freshwater and arable land resources, while eliminating runoff.

"By establishing production sites to grow Viridos-engineered microalgae in saltwater, we are creating the foundation for a biofuel future that moves away from fossil fuels without competing for precious resources such as fresh water and arable land," said Oliver Fetzer, CEO of Viridos. 

SAF vs. Traditional Jet Fuel

SAF is an alternative to conventional jet fuel that, on a lifecycle basis, reduces greenhouse gas emissions associated with air travel as compared to conventional jet fuel alone. At the present time, SAF is made from used cooking oil and agricultural waste. Scientists are working on ways to make SAF from other sources, such as household trash or forest waste.

To date, United Airlines has invested in the future production of over three billion gallons of SAF, which, the airline states, is the most of any airline in the world. The UAV Sustainable Flight Fund is an investment vehicle designed to leverage support from cross-industry businesses in order to support start-ups focused on decarbonizing air travel through SAF research, technology, and production.

The fund has more than $100 million in investments from United Airlines and its corporate partners, including Air Canada, Boeing, GE Aerospace, JPMorgan Chase, and Honeywell.

In addition to the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, United has launched a SAF purchasing program called the Eco-Skies Alliance and established a venture fund—United Airlines Ventures—to identify and invest in companies and technologies that can decarbonize air travel.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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