First air biofuel flight on November 14, 2016Forest Residuals Take to the Air

First air biofuel flight on November 14, 2016

By Barbara Coyner

“If it smells a little bit like Christmas trees as you are flying across country today, it’s because this plane is being fueled, in part, by 20 percent biofuel that is sourced from forest residual products found right here in the Pacific Northwest, our home. So it’s a pretty exciting demonstration flight we’re doing today to show that a market exists for biofuels, and we are excited to have all of you on board …”

Image of the plane and some of the dignitaries on the flight, including Craig Rawlings and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Ag, who is standing in the center.

Historic Flight

With that announcement in the jet’s cabin, the Alaska Airlines 737 taxied down the Sea-Tac runway and was off, winging its way to Washington D.C. The November 14 nonstop flight carried its share of dignitaries, along with regularly booked passengers who were given the option to choose another flight. After hearing about the development of the jet fuel and the historic nature of the flight, however, virtually all the commercial passengers chose to stay on board. Also on board was a contingent of Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) members who have been working on the novel biofuels project for over five years.

When the plane touched down at Reagan International, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack greeted the passengers, underscoring the part USDA played with its initial $39.6 grant for research. The historic flight signaled the serious progress in developing alternatives to fossil fuels, and the potential part the Northwest timber industry can play in green energy.

“This isn’t a lab experiment, it’s a social experiment,” said Washington State University Professor Mike Wolcott, one of the instigators of NARA. He noted that bringing together the diverse blend of timber industry people, academics, congressional members, and rural specialists provided a rare opportunity to broaden dialogue. “Education goes in both directions,” he said, of the partnership that also featured Alaska Airlines and biofuel producer Gevo. “We all worked hand in hand.”

Creating the Fuel

Wolcott described the research of biomass as thorough and rigorous, including sampling more than 20 harvest sites using GIS mapping, and analyzing everything from slope contours, to the use of rubber tires on sites and factoring in numerous transportation challenges.

Because forest residues vary in moisture content, one big focus was getting the load weights consistent. Most loads dropped below the allowable weight due to moisture reduction, as truckers such as Montana’s Kevin Jump stepped in to help with the analysis. Additionally, Potlatch Corporation furnished its various long-term data sets, and area tribes brought in their experience, as did Lane Forest Products at Springfield, Oregon. Forest residuals were drawn from both private and tribal lands.

Wolcott has long been eager to put his own forestry-related experience to work in making the timber industry even more efficient. “I often wondered why we were always looking for new feed stock when we have a perfectly good one right here,” he said, adding that the pulp industry isn’t competing for branches and other forest residue, which have traditionally ended up being burned as waste in slash piles.

The fuels and chemical side of biomass especially drew the attention of Wolcott and others on the NARA team. Profitability was also an issue. “But the hallmark has always been utilization and to use every piece we can,” he added. “There’s the environmental side and the need for rural jobs too. The rural economy is important to me, and there can be job growth in biomass. The challenge is to bring all the factors together.”

Finding a Producer

Among the biggest factors of the jet fuel experiment was finding a serious producer of the biofuel. NARA turned to Gevo, an established company that produced the 1,080 gallons of biofuel for Flight 4 at a demonstration plant in Minnesota, refining it at a Texas refinery.

The fuel had to meet American Society for Testing and Materials standards before the flight could proceed. But it’s a long leap from a lab experiment to making the jet fuel commercially. Pat Gruber, Gevo’s CEO, signaled that his company is ready to go the extra mile to bring forest residue into the mix of biofuels already produced by his company.

NARA member Craig Rawlings echoed Gruber’s optimism about commercially producing jet fuel from biomass. “Gevo has invested $50 million of its own money in this, and that is huge. They intend to get it to the commercialization stage. Also, the airlines want it to happen so they can get away from fossil fuels.”

Washington State Congressional Representatives Suzan Del Bene, Dave Reichert, and Denny Heck were among those flying on the historic flight and were pleased about the progress.

Senator Maria Cantwell voiced her support, as well, saying, “Today’s flight comes after years of investments to help the aviation biofuels industry take off. By creating these sustainable biofuels, we will revitalize our rural agricultural communities, foster economic growth, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and cut our dependence on foreign oil, while growing our competitiveness in global markets.”

With the historic November 14 Alaska flight now in the books, the sky might indeed be the limit for the Northwest timber industry.


TimberWest November/December 2013
November/December 2016

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