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United Airlines announces JV to develop sustainable fuel using ethanol

United Airlines announces JV to develop sustainable fuel using ethanol

An innovative Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) technology that employs ethanol as its feedstock will be developed and subsequently commercialized by United Airlines, Tallgrass, and Green Plains Inc. through a new joint venture called Blue Blade Energy. If the technology works as planned, Blue Blade expects to start building a pilot plant in 2024, then a full-scale facility that might start doing business by 2028. The offtake deal might provide for enough SAF to operate more than 50,000 flights yearly between Chicago and Denver, United’s key airports.

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Blue Blade’s new SAF technology was developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a leading center for technological innovation in sustainable energy. SAF, which uses non-petroleum feedstock, is a low-carbon alternative to traditional jet fuel that offers up to 85%** lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.

United, Tallgrass, and Green Plains will each provide their unique industry expertise to help develop the joint venture. Under this collaborative approach:

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  • Tallgrass will manage research and development of the technology, including pilot plant development, and will manage the construction of the production facility.
  • Green Plains will supply the low-carbon ethanol feedstock, and use its ethanol industry expertise to manage operations once the pilot facility is constructed.
  • United Airlines will assist with SAF development, fuel certification and into-wing logistics, and has also agreed to purchase up to 2.7 billion gallons of SAF produced from the joint venture.

If the technology is commercialized, the location of Blue Blade’s initial plant would allow easy access to low-carbon feedstock from Green Plains’ Midwest ethanol production facilities. While the initial SAF facility intends to use ethanol, the technology has the capability to work with any alcohol-based feedstock as its fuel source.

Blue Blade Energy marks one of the largest direct investments from United Airlines Ventures (UAV), United’s corporate venture arm, into SAF. Launched in 2021, UAV targets startups, upcoming technologies, and sustainability concepts that will complement United’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 without relying on traditional carbon offsets. United has aggressively pursued strategic investments in SAF producers and revolutionary technologies including carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft and air taxis.

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