Alaska Airlines tests fuel partly made from trees: Is this a sustainable solution?

Twenty percent of the fuel was convered from an organic compound made from residual wood from logging operations.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Fueling manager Jarid Svraka pulls down a hose after fueling an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737-800 jet with a new, blended alternative jet fuel Monday, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash.

Alaska Airlines became the first commercial airline to fly its passengers from one point to another using fuel made from trees on Monday morning. The flight was a long haul – Seattle to Washington, D.C. – but then, so is the effort to create a more renewable alternative to traditional jet fuel.

The flight used a 20 percent mixture of the new biofuel mixed with traditional fossil fuels.

While the new, more sustainable energy source won't become a standard part of airline fueling practices any time soon, due to economic limitations, the flight itself could be a significant step toward a greener future as airlines look for more environmentally-friendly solutions in a world increasingly concerned about climate change. 

The new fuel is made from forest residuals, which consist of leftover branches and chunks of wood from traditional logging processes. The airline says the wood came from sustainably managed forests in Oregon, Montana, and Washington, which would have otherwise been burned off. These forest residuals were then processed to convert the cellulose in the wood into isobutanol, a chemical with similar properties to ethanol, which was then converted into fuel for the jet and mixed into the traditional fossil fuel mix, functionally indistinguishable from the real thing.

"I am proud to see the world's first biojet fuel made from forest residuals being flown on an Alaska Airlines airplane," said Sen. Patty Murray (D) of Washington in a statement from Alaska Airlines. "The Pacific Northwest continues to be on the cutting edge of new technology that will make airplanes better, safer, and more efficient, and I'm thrilled that so many stakeholders came together and that Washington State University has led this important effort."

Of course, the positive environmental effect of the 1,080 gallons of biofuel used on this one flight is negligible, and hopes to make it a regular part of the fuel mix may be put off somewhat by its price tag. Gevo, the biofuel company that produced the fuel for the flight, hopes to reduce the price of isobutanol to between $3.50 and $4.50 per gallon by the end of the year, The Seattle Times reports. For comparison, the current price of oil is only $1.05 per gallon. In addition to those difficulties, Gevo itself is experiencing financial difficulties that have cast doubt on the future of the company.

Alaska Airlines, for its part, is casting the use of isobutanol in a much more optimistic light.

"This is just one flight today," Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines' senior vice president for communications and external relations, said at a pre-flight news briefing, Geekwire reported. "But can you imagine if all of our flights out of Sea-Tac were operating with 20 percent of their fuel sourced from biofuels? That would be the equivalent of taking 30,000 cars off the highways here in the Seattle region."

The flight was a culmination of a five-year project sponsored by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), led by Washington State University and the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA). The project's cost was $39.6 million.

"In 2011, USDA awarded our largest-ever competitive research grant to the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, betting on the promise that cellulose-rich, discarded wood products could be a viable renewable fuel source instead of going to waste," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a USDA statement. "Over the course of the Obama Administration, USDA has invested $332 million to accelerate cutting-edge research and development on renewable energy, making it possible for planes, ships and automobiles to run on fuel made from municipal waste, beef fat, agricultural byproducts and other low-value sources."

While there probably wouldn't be enough forest residuals to become the backbone of the jet fuel industry around the world, incorporating as much of it as possible into fuel instead of burning it off is certainly a much more environmentally sustainable solution. Alaska Airlines also flew two flights in June with this philosophy, using a blend of biofuel made from the non-edible portion of sustainably-produced corn.

"Today is a tribute to all of our NARA partners, and especially to NIFA who supported our mission to facilitate the revolutionary development of biojet and bioproduct industries in the Pacific Northwest using forest residuals that would otherwise become waste products," said Ralph Cavalieri, the executive director of NARA, in the Alaska Airlines statement. "We are proud of every one of the partners and stakeholders – from forest managers to Gevo and Alaska Airlines – who have laid the foundations for a renewable fuel economy that will keep skies clear and healthy with the potential to bolster economically challenged timber-based rural communities in our region."

[Editor's note: An earlier version of the summary for this story mischaracterized how the fuel was made.]

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