Wood waste powers airline flight in 'breakthrough in bioenergy'

By Daniel Enoch

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 14, 2016 - An Alaska Airlines flight took off from Seattle today and landed at Washington Reagan National Airport in what USDA is calling a “breakthrough in bioenergy.”

The trip was the first commercial airlines flight powered by a renewable fuel made from wood waste, in this case discarded tree limbs and branches from forests in Washington, Oregon and Montana.

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USDA says the flight is the culmination of a five-year, $39.6 million research and education project supported by the department's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and led by Washington State University and the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. Launched in 2011, NARA has advanced research into biofuels and biochemicals, fostered the Northwest regional biofuel industry and helped educate tomorrow's workforce on renewable energy.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was present when the flight landed, said the grant was a bet on the promise that cellulose-rich wood waste could be a viable renewable fuel source.


“Today, we are able to celebrate the results of that investment, which is a major advancement for clean alternatives to conventional fossil fuels," Vilsack said. The Obama administration, he said, has invested a total of $332 million to accelerate “cutting-edge research and development on renewable energy, making it possible for planes, ships and automobiles to run on fuel made from municipal waste, beef fat, agricultural byproducts and other low-value sources.”

“All of this creates extra income sources for farmers and ranchers, is bringing manufacturing jobs back to rural America, and is keeping our country at the forefront of clean energy and innovation,” he said. “We must continue to focus on targeted investments to help the rural economy retool itself for the 21st century."

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The demonstration flight used a 20 percent blend of jet fuel made from cellulose derived from limbs and branches that typically remain on the ground after the harvesting of sustainably managed private forests, known as harvest residuals. Cellulose, the main component of wood, is the most abundant material in nature and has long been a subject of investigation for producing sustainable biofuels.

The wood waste came from forests owned by Weyerhaeuser in Washington and Oregon, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana. The 1,080 gallons of biofuel used in the flight was chemically indistinguishable from regular commercial jet fuel, USDA said.

Alaska Airlines estimates that if it were able to replace 20 percent of its entire fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport in near Seattle with biofuel, 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 USDA.

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