Washington state-based Alaska Airlines made history flying the first commercial flight using the world’s first renewable, alternative jet fuel. The fuel was made from forest residuals, the limbs and branches that remain after the harvesting of managed forests.
The alternative jet fuel was produced through the efforts of the Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), and a technology called SPORL, developed by Forest Products Laboratory’s JunYong Zhu.
The demonstration flight departed Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. The flight was fueled with a 20 percent blend of sustainable aviation biofuel, which is chemically indistinguishable from regular jet A fuel. The flight, the first commercial passenger flight of its kind, continues to advance viable alternatives to conventional fossil fuels for aviation.
Reducing carbon footprint
“This latest milestone in Alaska’s efforts to promote sustainable biofuels is especially exciting since it is uniquely sourced from the forest residuals in the Pacific Northwest,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines’ senior vice president of communications and external relations. “NARA’s accomplishments and the investment of the U.S. Department of Agriculture provide another key in helping Alaska Airlines and the aviation industry reduce its carbon footprint and dependency on fossil fuels.”
While the 1,080 gallons of biofuel used on the flight has a minimal impact to Alaska Airlines’ overall greenhouse gas emissions, if the airline were able to replace 20 percent of its entire fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 142,000 metric tons of CO2. This is equivalent to taking approximately 30,000 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.
NARA is a five-year project that launched in 2011 and is comprised of 32 member organizations from industry, academia and government laboratories. Today’s flight represents its efforts to develop alternative jet fuel derived from post-harvest forestry material that is often burned after timber harvest.
The forest residual feedstock used to power Alaska Airlines Flight 4 was sourced from tribal lands and private forestry operations in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to producing 1,080 gallons of biofuel used for the flight, other key tasks of the project included evaluating the economic, environmental and societal benefits and impacts associated with harvesting unused forest residuals for biofuel production.
Empowering regional, rural economies
The NARA initiative was made possible by a $39.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to support research on biofuels and biochemicals, foster regional supply chain coalitions, empower rural economic development and educate the public on the benefits of bioenergy.
“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, NARA executive director. “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.”
Gevo, Inc., a NARA partner, successfully adapted its patented technologies to convert cellulosic sugars derived from wood waste into renewable isobutanol, which was then converted into Gevo’s Alcohol-to-Jet (ATJ) fuel. Believed to be the world’s first alternative jet fuel produced from wood, the fuel meets international ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards, allowing it to be used safely for today’s commercial flight.
WSU among many partners, stakeholders
“This first of its kind flight demonstrates Gevo’s commitment and ability to convert a wide range of sugar feedstocks into drop-in renewable fuels,” said Pat Gruber, Gevo’s chief executive officer. “We are pleased that we had the opportunity to prove, through the NARA project, that cellulosic sugars from wood can be used to successfully make commercial jet fuel. We congratulate our fellow NARA partners and thank the USDA-NIFA for its unwavering support in the pursuit of renewable jet fuel. I also thank Alaska Airlines, which continues to be a great partner.”
Photos and video from today’s news conference are available for download at