Biofuel from logging scraps powers Alaska Airlines jet on cross-country flight

Source: By Dominic Gates, Seattle Times • Posted: Wednesday, November 16, 2016

An Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to Washington, D.C., on Monday morning was powered with a jet-fuel blend containing 20 percent renewable biofuel made from Pacific Northwest forest residuals — the limbs and branches that remain after the harvesting of managed forests.

Billed as the first commercial flight running partly on wood, the alternative jet fuel was produced through the research efforts of the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA). Led by Washington State University, the group aims to build a sustainable supply chain for aviation biofuel using the leavings from logging operations.

The wood came from Washington, Oregon and Montana, including forests managed by Weyerhaeuser, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes.

Biofuels company Gevo used patented technologies to convert cellulosic sugars derived from wood waste into renewable isobutanol at a fermentation facility in St. Joseph, Mo., then further converted that at its biorefinery in Silsbee, Texas.

The resultant fuel is certified as equivalent to regular aircraft-jet fuel produced from oil.

Alaska used 1,080 gallons of the biofuel on the flight. The airline said that replacing 20 percent of its entire fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport with the same fuel would reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 142,000 metric tons of CO2 per year.

However, for now the biofuel remains much more expensive than regular jet fuel, so it won’t be used for day-to-day flying.

In a September financial filing, Gevo said it aims to get the selling price of its pre-refined isobutanol product down to between $3.50 and $4.50 per gallon this year, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.

That compares with crude oil, which sells for about $1.05 per gallon.

Alaska spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said “the NARA group is not breaking cost down” but conceded it’s “priced at a premium.”

Gevo’s latest filing also warns there is “substantial doubt” about the company’s future, “which may hinder our ability to obtain further financing” and continue operations. For the first nine months of 2016, Gevo lost $35 million on revenue of $21 million.

Among the passengers on Monday’s flight was Leah Grace, deputy press secretary for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

“As a passenger on this flight, I can confirm it was very pleasant, but unfortunately did not smell like Christmas trees,” Grace tweeted after landing.