Solazyme has spent years fermenting algae with the goal to produce a renewable fuel. It has shown how it can power vehicles, but now it has opened a large-scale market. A United 737 jetliner leaving Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport is the first commercial flight to be operated on a blend of biofuel and standard jet fuel.
"To see something come out of a lab like you see here and then get it scaled up and actually see it in a commercial application is really quite gratifying," said Solazyme's Bob Florence.
The Chicago-bound plane was powered by a 40-percent biofuel, 60-percent jet fuel mix.
South San Francisco-based Solazyme now has a signed contract to supply United 20 million gallons of biofuel. That's less than 1 percent of the carrier's fuel consumption, but Solazyme is ramping up for large-scale production.
"We're in the process of developing and designing plants right now. Those plants will be up and in operational by the end of 2013. We're going to have those plants, multiple plants, all over the globe at some point," said Florence.
The blended fuel has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent. The potential cost savings will depend on oil prices Jet fuel costs $3.11 a gallon today. In time, Solazyme expects its biofuel will be $3.44 a gallon. Alaska Airlines is also launching a similar project this week with biofuel made from used cooking oil. Alaska Airlines says it bought 28,500 gallons of biofuel. That will be enough to fuel 75 planes over the next two or three weeks.
Airports are embracing the move to biofuel.
"The airlines obviously are in the business of burning fuel to move you from here to there, and the less oil they can do, the more efficient they can do it, then the better off we all are," said airport spokesperson Dave Vossbrink.
The choice of Houston, the home of big oil, for the inaugural flight sends a message.
"We're definitely here with our renewable oil technology. We're here to stay," said Florence.