Alaska Airlines makes first commercial flight using fuel made from trees, forest residuals

An Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 became the first commercial flight to be powered on a biofuel blend made from forest residuals. The flight on Monday, Nov. 14, 2016 flew from Sea-Tac Airport to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEA-TAC AIRPORT, Wash - Alaska Airlines made history on Monday with the first commercial flight that used renewable, alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals.

The Boeing 737 jet flew from Sea-Tac Airport to Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. with fuel made from a blend of tree limbs and branches.

"The jet fuel itself is 20 percent blend of petroleum and renewables," said Glenn Johnston from Gevo, Inc. "This is the future of being able to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint."

The material is the byproduct of a timber harvest and usually heads for the burn pile with other waste.

The fuel for the flight came from local tribal lands and private forest operations and was produced through the efforts of Washington State University and the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA).

"[It is] the first commercial airline flight to be powered by certified, sustainable, bio-jet fuel, produced from wood and other wood materials that are the result of timber harvesting on managed forest lands," said NARA executive director Ralph Cavaleri Cavalier, who is also the Vice President for Research at WSU.

The project started five years ago, funded by a $40 million federal grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Replacing 20 percent of the fuel used to power Alaska Airlines planes at Sea-Tac would reduce carbon emissions equal to 30,000 cars a year.

"Hopefully it's something that will be sustainable and last for a long time that we can continue to improve this technology and get more efficiency out of it," said passenger Steven Wright.

Funding is still needed to put the fuel in daily flights, not just demonstrations.

Right now, the biofuel blend is more expensive than jet fuel. But, the hope is that production and material costs will come down in the next few years.

"It really is the dawn of a new day when it comes to aviation and biofuels," said Port of Seattle Commissioner Jon Creighton "We understand that we have a responsibility to our local communities to move the ball forward."

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