“Biojet” fuel would use forest residuals that would otherwise become waste products.

Share story

Today’s synergy is tomorrow’s energy.

That is one principle underlying Washington State University’s collaborative, multidisciplinary work in biofuels – work that could pave the way toward sustainable, biologically based jet fuel for the aerospace industry in the Evergreen State and around the world.

WSU is forging a course to that future through its leadership of the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, a broad consortium of scientific, industrial and educational interests from throughout the Northwest. The team includes more than 30 partners, including Alaska Airlines, Weyerhaeuser, Gevo, the USDA Forest Service and the University of Washington.

With its slogan of “Wood to Wing,” and with support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the five-year NARA project seeks to facilitate development of a sustainable “biojet” fuel industry using forest residuals that would typically be be burned in a pile. That means taking a comprehensive look at building a supply chain for aviation biofuel with the goal of increasing efficiency in everything from forestry operations to conversion processes.

Washington does not currently produce aviation biofuels. NARA wants to change that.

Ralph Cavalieri, associate vice president for alternative energy at WSU, says the university took a leadership role in NARA because its long land-grant tradition in agricultural research and plant science, together with its expertise in technologies to convert plant matter into fuel, provide a natural framework for addressing the industry’s future fuel needs.

Spreading the word

In May, representatives from government, education and aerospace companies gathered in Seattle to share their expertise at NARA’s Northwest Wood-Based Biofuels + Co-Products Conference.

Boeing’s Michael Lakeman presented an overview of the technology landscape for sustainable aviation fuel, with special focus on what it takes to produce a sustainable fuel product, and the requirements that must be met in terms of both technical and economic performance.

Michael Wolcott, WSU regents professor of civil and environmental engineering and NARA co-director, gave a presentation on NARA’s mission.

“Developing alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals represents a significant economic challenge with considerable sustainability benefits,” he says. “While the price of oil fluctuates, the carbon footprint of fossil fuels remains constant.  NARA’s efforts to engage stakeholders from forest managers to potential fuel users like Alaska Airlines for laying the foundations of a bio-based, renewable fuel economy is exciting work that we believe will benefit society in the years ahead.”

Wolcott, Cavalieri and other WSU representatives promoted that message to more than 150,000 aviation industry representatives when they attended the 50th International Paris Air Show a few summers ago.

“Aviation is obviously a global activity and Paris is the place where the international aviation community meets every two years,” Cavalieri said. “It gave us a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate our research leadership and interact with all manner of aircraft and engine manufacturers, airline operators, and others in the aviation industry.”

Turning crops into jet fuel

Pursuing NARA’s “Wood to Wing” mission, the team’s efforts center on post-harvest forest residuals such as bark, treetops and branches. Those materials are often burned after a timber harvest, but using them as the feedstock for a biojet fuel supply chain will reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions.

WSU scientists also are exploring the use of algae, perennial grasses, hybrid poplars and oilseed crops such as camelina as sources for biofuel. Other WSU experts are focused on a variety of bioproduct, infrastructure and environmental needs to improve profitability and sustainability of biorefineries.

High-flying vision

In 2011, Alaska Airlines became the first U.S. airline to fly multiple commercial passenger flights using a biofuel refined from used cooking oil. The carrier flew 75 flights between Seattle and Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon.  Alaska Airlines has set the ambitious goal of using a sustainable aviation biofuel blend on all flights departing one or more airports by 2020.

In 2015, as NARA’s airline partner, Alaska announced it intends to fly a demonstration flight sometime in 2016 using 1,000 gallons of NARA’s iso-paraffinc kerosene alternative biofuel that will be blended up to 30 percent concentration with conventional fuel, which is the certification level for the type of fuel that NARA’s partner, Gevo, has developed.

“Alaska Airlines is thrilled to partner with NARA to help further promote sustainable aviation biofuels,” says Joe Sprague, the airline’s senior vice president of external relations. “Sustainable biofuels are a key to aviation’s future and critical in helping the industry and Alaska Airlines reduce its carbon footprint ad dependency on fossil fuels.”

In December, the Port of Seattle, Boeing and Alaska Airlines announced a partnership to move toward a significant environmental goal: powering all flights by all airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport with aviation biofuel. SeaTac is the first U.S. airport to lay out a long-term roadmap to incorporate aviation biofuel into its infrastructure.

The three entities signed a memorandum of understanding to launch a $250,000 feasibility study to find out what it will take to achieve that goal. The study is expected to be complete by year’s end.

Learn more about how Washington State University researchers untangle complex problems to enrich quality of life for us all.