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United Airlines Tests Synthetic Jet Fuel on Commercial Flight

United Airlines (UA) has conducted the first flight by a U.S. commercial airline using natural gas synthetic jet fuel. The fuel is claimed as the only alternative fuel type certified for commercial aviation.

The engineering validation flight was conducted using certified synthetic jet fuel, called RenJet, produced by Rentech. It is a drop-in fuel, which means that it can be used in existing engines with no modifications required, said UA.

RenJet is produced from renewable or fossil feedstock and is readily scalable for commercial production, according to Rentech. The fuel is approved by ASTM International, and is safe for use on passenger flights.

For the test flight, a 40/60 mix with conventional Jet A fuel was used in one of two engines on an Airbus 319 aircraft that departed from the Denver International Airport.

The onboard team including 19 engineers collected data on the performance of the fuel during several maneuvers, including taxi, takeoff, climb, cruise, auxiliary power unit start, descent and approach.

Results and analysis of the performance and environmental benefits of the synthetic jet fuel and the aircraft are expected within the next 10 days.

Several airlines including Japan Airlines, Continental Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Airbus, and Air New Zealand have tested biofuels over the past few years.

Last year, Rentech signed a memorandum of understanding with 13 airlines, including UA, to provide synthetic jet fuel from its proposed facility in Mississippi. In addition, a group of 14 airlines including UA that service the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport agreed to purchase up to 750 million gallons of renewable jet fuel and biodiesel. The fuel, derived from camelina, is to be produced by AltAir Fuels.

In August last year, eight airlines at Los Angeles International Airport agreed to a multi-year deal with Rentech to use up to 1.5 million gallons of renewable synthetic diesel for ground service equipment operations, starting in late 2012.

Earlier this year, Rentech and ClearFuels Technology jointly received a $22.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to construct a biomass gasifier at Rentech’s Energy Technology Center in Denver, which will be used for the production of renewable synthetic fuels from biomass in late 2011.

In February, British Airways announced plans to build a plant that will produce biojet fuel from plasma gasification of biomass.

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