Alaska Airlines to complete flight powered by biomass


It was just a few years ago that a coalition of aviation companies and other stakeholders were banding together to figure out a way to fly jetliners on fuel made from woody biomass generated by Northwest forests. And it was also a few years ago that Washington State Forester Aaron Everett said at the annual meeting of the Washington Forest Protection Association that the state Department of Natural Resources is bullish on the potential of creating jet fuel from timber slash.

This would be a combination of two great state industries: aerospace and forestry, according to (Aaron) Everett of the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “Our view of (jet fuel and biomass) is wild optimism and great opportunity.”

That wild optimism and great opportunity was on display this week with the announcement by Washington State University that a coalition, including WSU, University of Washington, Weyerhaeuser, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several other colleges, was leading the charge on a long, possibly cross-country, airline flight using 1,000 gallons of jet fuel made from Northwest woody biomass.

The coalition, called Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), is helping to make the fuel for Alaska Airlines, which will complete the flight.

(NARA co-director Michael Wolcott) said biomass is ideal because one of the goals of the project is to “not use food-based materials so there’s no competition between food and fuels. In this case, we’re using the residue of the forestry industry. We’re using materials that can’t be used in pulp and lumber … and we use a portion of that to be produced into fuels.”

NARA is a five-year project supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It’s made up of 22 member organizations ranging from industry and academia to government laboratories. Its mission is to facilitate development of biojet and bioproduct industries in the Pacific Northwest while also evaluating the economic, environmental and societal benefits of the project.

“Developing alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals represents a significant economic challenge with considerable sustainability benefits,” Wolcott said in a statement. “While the price of oil fluctuates, the carbon footprint of fossil fuels remains constant. NARA efforts to engage stakeholders from forest managers to potential fuel users like Alaska Airlines to lay the foundations for a bio-based, renewable fuel economy is exciting work that we believe will benefit society in the years ahead.”

Alaska Airlines’ involvement shows how seriously the airline industry is taking the need to move away from traditional fossil fuels.

Alaska Airlines will blend the wood-based biofuel with conventional jet fuel for the flight, similar to the way ethanol is blended into gasoline, Wolcott said.

…Analyzing ways to make the biofuel competitive price-wise is part of the five-year research effort, which will wrap up next year. At this point, “cost is absolutely a challenge,” particularly with the price of crude oil dropping, Wolcott said.

Tracking the energy used to make the biofuel is also part of the study. Researchers want to get a true picture of the fuel’s carbon footprint.

“This is not carbon-neutral, but it has substantially less carbon” than jet fuel from petroleum, Wolcott said.

Alaska Airlines joined the project to help promote the use of alternative fuels, said Joe Sprague, a senior vice president for the airline.

In 2011, Alaska Airlines became the first U.S. airline to fly 75 commercial passenger flights using a biofuel made from used cooking oil. Later this year, Alaska will fly the first commercial flight using an alcohol-to-jet fuel.