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First forest-powered commercial flight makes debut

Washington state-based Alaska Airlines has flown the first commercial flight powered by renewable jet fuel made from forest residuals.

The alternative jet fuel was produced by the Washington State University-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA)

The demonstration flight departed Seattle-Tacoma International and headed 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. 

“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, according to NARA. 

NARA is a five-year project that launched in 2011 and is comprised of 32 member organizations from industry, academia and government laboratories. 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. 

NARA partner Gevo, Inc. adapted its patented technologies to convert cellulosic sugars derived from wood waste into renewable isobutanol. This was then further 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 standards, allowing it to be used safely for today’s commercial flight. 

Pat Gruber, Gevo’s Chief Executive Officer, said: “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.”  

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