A new report from aviation and renewable energy interests in the Pacific Northwest has found that an emerging market for sustainable aviation fuels is eminently plausible.
The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest consortium concludes that no single feedstock or technology pathway is likely to provide sustainable aviation fuel at the scale or speed needed to produce and maintain jet fuel supply.
Therefore, the 132-page report, “Powering the Next Generation of Flight,” focuses on a portfolio of options, including different conversion technologies and sources of potentially sustainable biomass, including oilseeds, forest residues, solid waste, and algae.
Instead of trying to single out the best source of aviation fuels, SAFN identifies the need to create “complete supply chains that can draw upon diverse feedstocks.”
The Northwest is a logical choice for the development of a renewable jet fuel industry and supply chains. It’s where Boeing develops, tests and builds aircrafts and the four-state region is a major source of a wide variety of biomass resources. It’s also the home of two of the nation’s top ports in Seattle and Tacoma, and the Port of Seattle owns and operates Sea-Tac International Airport.
It’s no surprise then that SAFN’s sponsors include Boeing, the ports of Seattle and Portland, Spokane International Airport, Alaska Airlines and Washington State University. The 35 stakeholders include the Department of Energy, USDA, the Department of Defense, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels, the Air Transport Association, Weyerhaeuser and a host of regional and national renewable energy companies and organizations.
Last year Navy F-18 fighter planes ran test flights using jet fuel partially made from plant oils. Last month the U.S. Air Force’s famed Thunderbirds unit of F-16 fighter-bombers became the first aerial demonstration team to fly on biofuel. Those biofuel test runs are sure signs of an emerging market, according to the SAFN report.
The report says running a jet engine on a blend of biofuel, which is an alcohol refined from plants such as algae, maize or soybeans is much less polluting, and less costly, than using pure petroleum-based fuel.
Keith Loveless, a vice president with Alaska Airlines, says the company saw a 47 percent increase in aircraft fuel prices this year. “Other airlines have had even worse effects. The wild swings and prices have resulted in the loss of hundreds and thousands of jobs in our industry.”
But unlike other industries aviation has limited alternatives to improve energy efficiency or stabilize cost.
“We don’t have anything like an electric car that’s out there,” Loveless notes. “You are not going to see solar panels on wings any time soon so we really need to prioritize the application of sustainable biofuels to the aviation sector.”
The report’s co-author, Patrick Mazza with the environmental group Climate Solutions says a big advantage for the region is the wide variety of biomass resources available. “Unlike our current biofuel industry which largely relies on two crops—corn and soy beans—we’re talking about a whole range of feedstock sources including oil seed crops, algae and forest residues.”
The report envisions a supply chain of growers to produce biomass, refineries to make the fuel and a market of airline companies to purchase it.
That vision and the synergies to develop, produce and deliver an effective, efficient sustainable aviation fuel supply chain are already here—in the PNW.