Alaska Airlines plans to fly a demonstration flight next year using alternative biofuel developed with the help of research at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
The Seattle-based airline is teaming up with Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, which is led by Washington State University, to advance the production and use of jet fuel made from the tree limbs that remain after a forest harvest. The planned flight would use 1,000 gallons of the alternative biofuel.
The demonstration flight signals a growing interest in the aviation industry for a viable alternative to conventional fossil fuel, according to WSU.
Some research has already been done at the the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, or BSEL, at WSU Tri-Cities in Richland toward developing the new biofuel for the Alaska Airlines flight.
Associate professor Xiao Zhang has conducted research on processing Douglas fir. This year he is looking at what to do with lignin, a byproduct left after preprocessing woody products to use the cellulose. The lignin binds the cellulose, which can be used in biofuel.
BSEL also conducted research on pretreatment of woody biomass for use in biofuel, but the method studied in the Tri-Cities was not picked for production.
The Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, or NARA, is focused on developing alternative jet fuel from the materials like treetops and branches that are often burned after timber is cut. Using that material for jet biofuel would reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions as well at promoting economic development in rural communities near forests.
“While the price of oil fluctuates, the carbon footprint of fossil fuels remains constant,” said Michael Wolcott, of WSU, the NARA co-director, in a statement. NARA is an alliance of public universities, government laboratories and private industry.
In 2011 Alaska Airlines became the first U.S. airline to fly multiple commercial passenger flights using a biofuel refined from used cooking oil. Later this year it plans to fly the first commercial flight using an alcohol-to-jet fuel.
Its goal is to use a sustainable aviation biofuel blend on all flights departing at least one airport by 2020.
“Sustainable biofuels are a key to aviation’s future and critical in helping the industry and Alaska airlines reduce its carbon footprint,” said Joe Sprague, an Alaska Airlines senior vice president, in a statement.