Continental Airlines wants to fuel its jetliners with something more palatable than Texas Tea. The Houston-based airline is teaming up with...

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Continental Airlines wants to fuel its jetliners with something more palatable than Texas Tea.

The Houston-based airline is teaming up with Boeing and engine maker GE Aviation to test a plane powered by a new generation of renewable fuels, the companies said Thursday.

The agreement makes Continental the first major U.S. airline to formally dabble in alternative energy, a trend that gains momentum as crude oil prices soar beyond their historical record. The airline industry, which accounts for 2 percent of global carbon emissions, is high on the watchlist of environmentalists and regulators concerned about global warming.

“Exploring sustainable biofuels is a logical and exciting new step in our environmental commitment,” said Continental executive Mark Moran in a statement.

The flight, scheduled for the first half of 2009, will be Boeing’s third joint biofuel demonstration with an airline.

Last month Boeing and British airline Virgin Atlantic flew a 747 from London to Amsterdam, with one engine powered by a mix of 80 percent jet fuel and 20 percent biofuel based on coconut and babassu oil. The biofuel was provided by Seattle-based Imperium Renewables.

Boeing also plans a flight with Air New Zealand in the second half of this year.

The tests are part of an industrywide effort to find a biofuel that works while being environmentally and economically sustainable, said Boeing director of environmental strategy Bill Glover in a conference call with reporters.

Common alternative fuels based on corn, soybean and palm oil have been criticized because it takes enormous amounts of water and land to produce them; in addition, higher demand for these staples is disrupting food prices.

That’s why the airline industry is focusing on so-called second-generation biofuels, based on marginal or experimental crops such as algae, switchgrass and jatropha.

In the upcoming Continental flight, the companies will look at different, more advanced biofuels that in the Virgin Atlantic test, with a blend ratio ranging from 20 to 50 percent, said Glover. The Air New Zealand flight will also test another set of biofuels, he added.

“This is very much in the experimental stage; we don’t have all the answers yet,” Glover said.

A viable biofuel would be the Holy Grail of the airline industry, whose carbon footprint is poised to grow as demand for air travel skyrockets. Besides the soaring cost of fossil fuels, government-mandated greenhouse gas emission limits could make flying airplanes more costly.

The International Air Transport Association has proposed building a zero-emissions aircraft within 50 years. Many analysts think that lofty goal is unattainable, but increased biofuel use, combined with other measures, could help keep emissions in check.

Airlines are also modernizing their fleets with more fuel-efficient planes, and seeking better traffic management on the ground and in the air to minimize travel time.

“This is a global challenge that calls for global solutions,” said Glover. “People want to travel — and technology is really a key to enabling that to happen.”

Ángel González: 206-515-5644 or