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Sample bottles of biofuel sit on an Alaska Airlines counter at Sea-Tac. (Credit: Alaska Airlines)

Alaska Airlines says it sent a Boeing 737 jet on the first commercial airline flight that was partially fueled by branches, stumps and other leftovers from forests in the Pacific Northwest.

The jet took off this morning from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and headed for Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., with its tanks full of a new type of biofuel blend.

Twenty percent of the jet fuel came from wood waste that was collected during timber harvests or thinning operations on land owned by Weyerhaeuser in Oregon, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana, plus rejected wood fibers from Cosmo Specialty Fibers in Cosmopolis, Wash.

In a typical timber harvest, some of the leftover limbs, branches and stumps are left behind to replenish the land and provide cover. The rest is typically pushed into a pile and burned.

Those practices provided an opportunity for the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, a public-private consortium led by Washington State University. Researchers took advantage of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to demonstrate a technology that converts the excess waste wood into isobutanol.

Like ethanol, isobutanol can be blended with other ingredients to produce engine fuel. Isobutanol is typically more expensive to produce than ethanol, but it makes for a higher-performance fuel that’s well suited for aircraft engines.

In June, Alaska Airlines started fueling a couple of its commercial jets with a 20 percent isobutanol blend that was produced from non-edible field corn.

NARA’s forest-based blend brings some additional advantages: The isobutanol is produced from an abundant feedstock that doesn’t compete with food production. Forest managers can reduce their reliance on slash pile burning, which in turn reduces air pollution. And if the conversion process takes hold, it’s likely to give an employment boost to areas that have lost jobs in the timber industry.

There’s an environmental boost as well: Seattle-based Alaska Airlines estimates that using jet fuel produced from sustainable sources can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from commercial jets by 70 percent. Depending on the feedstock and the production process, the emission reduction over the entire fuel production life cycle should amount to somewhere between 50 and 80 percent.

“This is just one flight today,” Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines’ senior vice president for communications and external relations, said at a pre-flight news briefing. “But can you imagine if all of our flights out of Sea-Tac were operating with 20 percent of their fuel sourced from biofuels? That would be the equivalent of taking 30,000 cars off the highways here in the Seattle region.”

Alaska Airlines isn’t the only aerospace company giving a boost to biofuels. For more than five years, the Boeing Co. has been working with an assortment of partners to pioneer sustainable aviation biofuel. Alaska Airlines, Boeing and the Port of Seattle are working toward a long-term goal of powering all flights by all airlines out of Sea-Tac with biofuel.

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