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Biofuel gets lift from Honeywell, Airbus, JetBlue

Group plans to study ways to make commercial aviation fuels out of plants including algae, rather than food sources such as corn and soy.

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.

Airbus A380
Could the massive new Airbus A380 someday run on biofuel derived from lowly algae? Airbus

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.