This past November, Alaska Airlines made history by completing the first commercial flight using an alternative jet fuel made in part from forest residuals, the limbs and branches that remain after the harvesting of managed forests. The first-of-its-kind renewable biofuel comprised 20 percent of the jet fuel blend, and it helped power the demonstration flight on a Boeing 737-800—carrying several elected officials and a number of researchers involved in the project, including Professor Indroneil Ganguly and SEFS doctoral candidate Laurel James, among the 163 passengers—from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. This cross-country flight on November 14 provided a triumphant culmination to a five-year USDA-funded project, led by Washington State University (WSU).
Nearly lost in the press coverage and excitement, though, were some of the contributions SEFS researchers made as key partners in this bio-jet fuel development, including leading the overall environmental, community and deep soil carbon impact assessments of this bio-based alternative energy.
Guiding the cutting-edge research on this alternative jet fuel has been the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA), a partnership of public universities, government laboratories and private industry. NARA received a $40 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture in 2011 to develop bio-based alternatives to traditionally petroleum-based products such as jet fuel. Led by WSU, NARA organized a comprehensive approach to building a supply chain for aviation biofuel with the goal of increasing efficiency in everything from forestry operations to conversion processes. The project aimed to create a sustainable industry to produce aviation biofuels and valuable co-products, all while empowering rural economies, increasing America’s energy security, and reducing aviation’s environmental impact.
At SEFS, Indroneil and Dr. Francesca Pierobon led a team of researchers evaluating the overall environmental footprint of the bio-jet fuel using a cradle-to-grave life-cycle assessment (LCA). To meet the U.S. Energy Independence and Securities Act standards, it was critical to be able to show that using this renewable biofuel could achieve at least a 60 percent lifecycle Greenhouse Gas (GHG) reduction threshold. Impressively, their LCA demonstrated the potential for as much as a 72-percent reduction in lifecycle GHG emissions using NARA’s jet fuel, which is chemically indistinguishable from regular jet fuel.
Typical forest harvest operations in the Pacific Northwest, after all, leave behind a considerable volume of unused residual woody biomass, most of which is collected into piles in the forest and burned. “So in my opinion,” says Indroneil, “the most important environmental benefit associated with producing this bio-jet fuel is the avoided slash pile burns, which improves local air quality and reduces the local health impacts caused by the harmful pollutants generated from burning.”
Through a community impact assessment (CIA), Professor Ivan Eastin—who led SEFS’ overall involvement in the project—and Research Associate Daisuke Sasatani evaluated the potential economic impacts, including job creation, of a bio-jet fuel production facility located in the Pacific Northwest. They found that establishing a commercial-sized bio-jet fuel production plant, located in southwestern Washington and producing 35 million gallons of woody biomass-based jet fuel per year, could generate approximately $650 million in industrial output while directly creating 173 jobs within the production facility—and indirectly leading to the creation of an additional 1,200 jobs within the supply chain.
For the soil carbon impacts assessment, Professor Rob Harrison led stump decomposition, deep soil carbon retention and nutrient sustainability studies. He and his team concluded that Pacific Northwest forests—particularly moist coastal coniferous forests—are highly productive due partly to high belowground resource stocks and availability. They further concluded that these resource stocks are likely to be resilient to additional biomass harvest removals that would provide feedstock for a biofuels and biochemical industry.
These findings, coupled with the successful demonstration flight, highlighted some of the enormous potential of viable alternatives to replace conventional fossil fuels for aviation.
“By creating an advanced drop-in biofuel from residual woody biomass, which is generally disposed of by open burning,” says Indroneil, “we are not only addressing the global warming issue by displacing fossil fuel, we are also presenting an economic alternative for forest-dependent communities.”
Photo below © USDA/Lance Cheung/USDA.