United Airlines invests $5 million in algae biofuel company. Which SAF problem does this address?

by | Mar 15, 2023 | Airlines, News, Travel Tech

United Airlines invests $5 million in algae biofuel company. Which SAF problem does this address?


United Airlines has made a $5 million investment in Viridos, a leading algae biofuel company working to produce sustainable, low-carbon, algae-based jet fuel at a commercially deployable level. Compared to traditional jet fuel, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) produced from Viridos algae oil is expected to have a reduced carbon footprint of 70 per cent making it an effective, more environmentally conscious alternative.

The investment was made by the United Airlines Ventures (UAV) Sustainable Flight Fund whose President, Mike Leskinen, said:

“SAF is proven, scalable, and the best tool we have to reduce our carbon emissions from flying, but we face a significant shortage of available feedstock […]  Viridos’ algae-based biofuel technology has the potential to help solve our supply problem without the need for farmland or other agricultural resources and marks our inaugural investment in our new cross-industry UAV Sustainable Flight Fund.”

Here, the UAV President outlines a potential paradox between SAF feedstock and environmental priorities.

As aviation attempts to mediate its impact on the planet, availability of SAF becomes crucial. IATA estimates that SAF could contribute to 65 per cent of the reduction in emissions needed to reach net-zero by 2050. Furthermore, the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition aims for the industry to run on 10 per cent SAF by 2030, up from 0.1 per cent in 2021. To meet these demands, there must be a significant increase in production. However, it is important this rapid scaling up does not have a detrimental knock on effect at feedstock level.

Currently, a few of the key resources used to produce SAF are used cooking oil, municipal waste, and waste animal fat. As noted by BloombergNEF, “about 6 million metric tons of used cooking oil and 27 million metric tons of animal fats are traded globally every year, which would cover only around 5 per cent of jet fuel consumption.” To meet the quantities required for the industry to significantly reduce its impact, considerably more feedstock will be required. However, as quoted in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal:

“You can’t just increase everybody’s consumption of french fries because we decided we need to double the amount of used cooking oil.” – BloombergNEF’s Ms. Davies

As SAF plays a substantial role in the industry’s reduction of its environmental impact, the origins of the feedstock must be kept in mind.

Discussing their process, Oliver Fetzer, CEO of Viridos said:

“By establishing production sites to grow Viridos-engineered microalgae in saltwater, we are creating the foundation for a biofuel future that moves away from fossil fuels without competing for precious resources such as fresh water and arable land.” 

Viridos algae is grown in vessels containing seawater, allowing “contained deployment in hot and dry locations without taxing scarce freshwater and arable land resources, while eliminating runoff.” The algae also has high surface area oil productivities allowing for a high output in comparatively small areas. Moreover, through bioengineering microalgae, oil productivity compared to wild algae can be improved seven fold making it efficient.

As demand for SAF rises, it is crucial that the nuances around the feedstocks used are kept in mind.


For more on SAF see Interview with Eddie Wilson, CEO Ryanair DAC – “Sustainable aviation fuel is the key”


Article by Jess Brownlow