On Monday, Alaska Airlines landed the first commercial flight powered in part by a new renewable fuel made of wood waste salvaged from private lands in Washington, Oregon and Montana.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack greeted the passengers for flight AS-4 arriving from Seattle, Wash., at Washington Reagan National Airport to highlight this breakthrough in bioenergy that supports jobs and rural economies by developing a sustainable bio-products industry in the Pacific Northwest utilizing wood harvest left-overs that would otherwise go to waste.
This flight is the culmination of a five-year, $39.6 million research and education project supported by the U.S. Department of Agricultures's National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), and led by Washington State University and the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA). Launched in 2011, NARA has advanced research into biofuels and biochemicals, fostered the Northwest regional biofuel industry and helped educate tomorrow's workforce on renewable energy.
"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. Today, we are able to celebrate the results of that investment, which is a major advancement for clean alternatives to conventional fossil fuels," said Vilsack.
Vilsack noted that 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. “All of this creates extra income sources for farmers and ranchers, is bringing manufacturing jobs back to rural America, and is keeping our country at the forefront of clean energy and innovation," he said.
The demonstration flight used a 20% blend of jet fuel made from cellulose derived from limbs and branches that typically remain on the ground after the harvesting of sustainably managed private forests, known as harvest residuals. Cellulose, the main component of wood, is the most abundant material in nature and has long been a subject of investigation for producing sustainable biofuels. The harvest residuals used to make fuel for this flight came from forests owned by Weyerhaeuser in Washington and Oregon, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana. The biofuel used is chemically indistinguishable from regular commercial jet fuel.
In addition to producing 1,080 gal. of biofuel used for the flight, other key tasks of the NARA project included evaluating the economic, environmental and societal benefits and impacts associated with harvesting unused forest residuals for biofuel production. NARA's 32 member organizations from industry, academia and government laboratories take a holistic approach to building an aviation biofuel supply chain within Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. The NARA initiative has also resulted in more than 50 peer-reviewed research publications in 2016 related to the development of biofuels and other products from residual wood, the development of teacher's guides and lesson plans on renewable energy, a biofuels webinar series, and the NARA Knowledge Base, an ongoing clearinghouse of biofuel information.
Alaska Airlines estimates that if it were able to replace 20% of its entire fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport with biofuel, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 142,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to taking approximately 30,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.