Washington State University, along with Boeing, Alaska Airlines and other groups, is starting a six-month analysis of ways to build a Pacific Northwest coalition to convert crops into commercial airplane fuel.
Billed as the first regional effort in the country to tackle the “farm-to-fuel” challenge, the group is called the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest project. The Port of Seattle, the Port of Portland, and Spokane International Airport are also involved with the project.
Over the next six months the group will define the policy issues and find out if the economic benefits justify building a refinery on the West Coast that would convert crops to bio-aviation fuel.
Converting various crops for jet fuel has been discussed for several years. Aircraft manufacturer Boeing has flown four commercial test flights using aviation fuel that was partly derived from coconut oil, algae, camelina and jatropha.
Several WSU researchers have started major studies to unlock ways to convert crops to fuels. Some of the most advanced research is occurring at its Tri-Cities refinery at the Biological Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, jointly operated with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
“This really is an exciting development from both the economic impact to the Northwest, but also to the advancement of clean fuel technologies worldwide,” said John Gardner, vice president of Economic Development and Global Engagement at WSU.
The airlines see three advantages in joining the effort, Gardner added. With a sustainable bio-aviation pipeline in place, they use less fossil fuel, they help reduce their operating costs and they establish a more reliable supply system for jet fuel.
The six-month assessment will include several regional meetings so that growers, energy officials, airport managers, government groups, researchers and entrepreneurs can gain a clearer idea of the costs and the commitments it would take to launch the program, Gardner said.
If that process produces a viable plan, the next phase will be for a Seattle company, Targeted Growth, to start building an initial refinery in Anacortes, Wash., Gardner said. He said the first jet fuel converted from regional crops would occur perhaps in late 2012 or early 2013.