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Each engine burned about 600 gallons during the flight, according to United, and created about the same carbon emissions (12,660 pounds). But because the sustainable fuel is made from plant-based sources instead of petroleum, and because plants consume carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, it has a carbon footprint that’s about 70 percent smaller.

“What we were trying to do is demonstrate that the aircraft can operate in the same capacity with sustainable fuel as with blended fuel,” says Lauren Riley, United’s managing director for global environmental affairs and sustainability. “It did. This is a true step in the path of decarbonization.”

Imagine sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, as part of a big plant-fuel-engine carbon recycling loop, rather than a one-way ticket that sends carbon from a subterranean oil patch directly to the atmosphere. In fact, federal government and industry estimates hold that using SAF can reduce lifetime carbon emissions from 50 to 80 percent depending on the feedstock and type of energy used during manufacturing. The Houston test flight was the first time a commercial aircraft ran at least one engine on 100 percent SAF, which is currently limited to a 50/50 blend on passenger flights.

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