United Airlines, along with energy infrastructure company Tallgrass and biorefining company Green Plains,  announced the launch of a new joint venture, Blue Blade Energy, aimed at developing and commercializing a new Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) technology using ethanol as feedstock.

United also announced that it will purchase up to 2.7 billion gallons of SAF produced from the joint venture. With the potential to provide up to 135 million gallons per year, the project could create United’s largest source of SAF.

United Airlines has committed to fully reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 without relying on carbon offsets. The agreement marks the latest in a series of SAF-focused initiatives for the company, including the launch of the Eco-Skies Alliance, a program aimed at enabling corporate customers the opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of travel beyond purchasing offsets, by paying the additional cost of SAF. In December 2021, United completed its first passenger flight with a 100% sustainable aviation fuel-powered engine.

United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen, said:

“The production and use of SAF is the most effective and scalable tool the airline industry has to reduce carbon emissions and United continues to lead the way. This new joint venture includes two expert collaborators that have the experience to construct and operate large-scale infrastructure, as well as the feedstock supply necessary for success.”

Sustainable aviation fuel is seen as one of the key tools to help decarbonize the aviation industry, which currently accounts for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. SAF is generally produced from sustainable resources, like waste oils and agricultural residues. SAF producers estimate the fuels can result in lifecycle GHG emissions reductions of as much as 85% relative to conventional fuels.

Under the agreement, the companies will invest up to a combined $50 million to develop the technology, where United will assist with SAF development, fuel certification and into-wing logistics, Tallgrass will manage the technology R&D and construction of the production facility, and Green Plains will supply low-carbon ethanol feedstock, and manage operations once the facility is built.

Alison Nelson, Vice President, Business Development at Tallgrass, said:

“Air travel uniquely connects people and improves lives, and the advancement of this novel SAF technology presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce emissions from aviation.  We are excited to partner with industry leaders United Airlines and Green Plains on this initiative.”

The companies stated that if the technology is successful, construction of the pilot facility will commence in 2024, followed by a full-scale facility that could begin commercial operations by 2028.

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.

Todd Becker, President and CEO of Green Plains, said:

“The potential impact of this project is a gamechanger for US agriculture, aligning a strong farm economy and a robust aviation transport industry focused on decarbonizing our skies.”

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