Science 3 min read

New Jet Biofuels Take to the Sky

Alaska Air Biofuel Jet |

Alaska Air Biofuel Jet |

Alaska Airlines completed many commercial flights in 2016 using jet biofuels. A Boeing 737-800, fueled by a hybrid of wood-waste residue alcohols combined with traditional jet fuel, took off from Seattle and touched down in Washington, D.C.’s Reagan Airport.

Cross-country Using Wood-Based jet Biofuels

In November 2016, an Alaska Airlines‘ Boeing 737-800 aircraft, with 163 passengers aboard, used 20% jet biofuels for a cross-country flight from Seattle to Washington D.C. The biofuel itself is a composite of traditional jet fuel and alcohols produced from wood residues. The residues are byproducts from commercial saw-milling and forest wood industries.

The flight used 1080 gallons of jet biofuel exactly, which has almost no effect Alaska Airlines greenhouse gas emissions per year. Yet, if the company were to utilize the jet biofuel for 20% of the fuel for its entire fleet, it would reduce its annual CO2 emission by 142,000 metric tons, the equivalent emissions from 30,000 fossil-fuel burning cars.

#AlaskaAirlines reduces emissions by 142K metric tons using wood-based jet biofuels.Click To Tweet

This achievement was made possible by the joint efforts of Washington State University, Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (Nara) and a private company for renewable technologies, GEVO Inc.

“This latest milestone in Alaska’s efforts to promote sustainable biofuels,” said Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines’ Senior Vice President of Communications and External Relations, “is especially exciting since it is uniquely sourced from the forest residuals in the Pacific Northwest.”

Corn did it First

This is not the first time that the eco-friendly Alaska Airlines used alternative fuel for one of its flights. Last June, the company used a similar 20% fuel blend based on non-edible corn for two flights.

Like corn, wood produces cellulosic sugars through photosynthesis. This sugar may be converted to an alcohol and then into kerosene or jet fuel.

The wood-based jet biofuels have advantages. They do not compete with food crops and do not take up the land used for cultivation. Instead, they use the waste wood from forest lumber operations, which is usually collected in piles and burned.

The efforts of Alaska Airlines and its partners will help reduce domestic consumption of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions while giving a boost to the sustainable development and economic potential of wood-dependent rural communities throughout the world.

Jet Biofuels Mean More Expensive Tickets for “Green” Flights

To use biofuels for all air traffic it would be necessary to produce massive quantities of each year. There are as of yet no companies specialized for this scale and type of production. However, as gas prices rise, the cost effectiveness of wood-based biofuel production increases.

As it stands now, the production of biofuels costs more than processing traditional jet fuels. Therefore, for now, biofueled flights will cost more.

In addition to the higher cost, there is the impact on the ecosystem. Removing wood waste from the forest actually reduces available nutrients for new growth.

Smart policies that focus on using the most energy efficient waste and leaving ample nutrients for new growth will have to be adopted to make wood-based biofuels practical for large scale use in commercial flights.

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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