Next year, Alaska Airlines will undertake a demonstration flight using 1,000 gallons of biofuel made from woody debris from Northwest forests.
The airline is teaming up with Washington State University, which is leading the effort to develop a wood-based biofuel embraced by the aviation industry. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gases while creating jobs in rural communities.
WSU is working with 21 partners on the biofuel project, including industry groups and other universities. The five-year research project is backed with a $40 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Producing the 1,000 gallons of fuel for the test flight is a milestone in the effort, project co-director Michael Wolcott said.
“It will be a flight of some length,” he said. “Longer than Pullman to Seattle – possibly a cross-country flight.”
But those are details still to be worked out with Alaska Airlines, he said.
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.
Slash from timber sales is used to make the biofuel. The process involves fermenting carbohydrates found in cellulose-derived tree sugars. The fermentation produces an alcohol called isobutanol, which is converted into hydrocarbons for the jet fuel.
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.