Airline industry eyes efforts to convert wood waste into aviation fuel


Air travel has long been identified as a carbon-intensive activity. This is especially so in the Pacific Northwest where Washington state residents generally travel greater distances to and from other major US cities. But the Port of Seattle and corporations like Alaska Airlines, The Boeing Company and Delta Air Lines are hoping to lower air travel’s carbon footprint – and potentially support forest health – by using more carbon-neutral fuel created from converted wood waste and forest floor debris. Other carriers like JetBlue and United Airlines also have committed to using more renewable biofuels.

Pacific Northwest aviation industry leaders have considered using aviation fuel made from wood waste and other biofuels since 2011. Alaska Airlines made aviation history in 2016 when it flew the first commercial flight on biofuel made of “forest residuals from the Pacific Northwest – the limbs, stumps and branches…left over after a timber harvest or forest thinning of managed forests on private land.” The groundbreaking flight, which traveled from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Regan National Airport in Washington D.C., was fueled by a 20% blend of the wood-based biofuel.

Repurposing wood waste and forest floor debris into a renewable biofuel also has the potential to cut carbon emissions by reducing wood residuals in forests and transforming them into sustainable biofuel. Said Graeme Burnett, a Delta Air Lines senior vice president, of Delta Air Line’s efforts:

“This single project could provide approximately 10% of Delta’s annual jet fuel consumption in the West Coast region and, if successful, could become the blueprint for future projects to support Delta’s goal to further reduce its carbon footprint. This project has additional environmental benefits because it reduces wood residuals in forests, which can increase potential fire hazards and inhibit future tree growth.”

Enthusiasm for developing sustainably sourced aviation fuel has existed in the Pacific Northwest for nearly two decades. But establishing an economically viable aviation biofuel infrastructure to scale has been a barrier. Though things may be changing as momentum and demand for renewable aviation fuel builds in the US and abroad.

Geekwire reports that the Port of Seattle is looking at “weaning Seattle-Tacoma International Airport off fossil fuels as part of its goal to have at least 10% of its fuel come from sustainable sources by 2028.” The technology news site notes that one way for the airport to reach that objective is to have “every plane that takes off from Sea-Tac fueled with a 90-10 ‘drop-in’ blend of conventional fuel and biofuel.”

In the end, more plant-based refineries will have to be built and operations related to creating the forest-based biofuel will have to ramp up to meet the Port of Seattle’s ambitious goal. That also means working forests will be called upon to help power this growing industry, further underscoring the vital role the forestry sector continues to play as a driver of economic development, innovation and environmental stewardship in Washington state.