Wood-based biofuel powers cross-country flight

WSU-led coalition partners with Alaska Airlines for the world’s first commercial flight using fuel made from forest residuals.

In November 2016 a commercial airplane powered by jet fuel made from woody biomass took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The historic Alaska Airlines flight to Washington, D.C. marked the culmination of five years of collaborative research exploring renewable, alternative jet fuel. Led by Washington State University, the research initiative laid the groundwork for development of an aviation biofuels industry in the Pacific Northwest.

As the world’s finite supply of fossil fuels dwindles, availability of renewable sources of jet fuel will become increasingly important. Woody biomass is a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based fuel. It is made primarily from limbs and branches that remain after a forest is logged. These residues are currently burned in the forest as waste products.

Fueling aircraft as well as the economy

Of the many types of feedstocks, or raw materials, that could be used to develop aviation fuel, woody biomass holds many advantages. It is readily available, and its harvesting helps manage Northwest forests. Unlike some other feedstocks, woody biomass can be used for fuel without compromising food production. Its harvesting may create jobs that revitalize rural economies.

The Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA)—a coalition of 32 organizations in industry, academia, and government laboratories—produced 1,080 gallons of alternative jet fuel for the Alaska Airlines flight. NARA is building the foundation for a renewable jet fuel industry in the Pacific Northwest. Led by Washington State University since its inception in 2011, NARA evaluates the economic, environmental, and societal benefits and impacts associated with harvesting unused forest residuals for alternative jet fuel production. Its work is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Biomass-based jet fuel could be a boon for the environment. The November flight used a 20 percent blend of jet biofuel. If Alaska Airlines were to replace 20 percent of its fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport with NARA’s alternative, it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by about 142,000 metric tons. That reduction is equivalent to what would be achieved by taking some 30,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.

Uniting minds across the University

WSU researchers and students were heavily involved in all aspects of the research initiative. Students worked across disciplines to evaluate supply chains. WSU Extension specialists directed community outreach. Chemical engineers developed new uses for lignin, an abundant byproduct of biofuel production, to help the biorefineries that covert woody biomass into jet fuel generate more profit.

Although the project is coming to a close, many researchers are continuing their work to propel the aviation biofuels industry to new heights.