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NARA & Alaska Airlines Promoting Wood-Based Biofuels

October 09, 2015
Author: John Greene

Despite the recent devastation caused by wildfires in the Pacific Northwest (PNW), a number of regional organizations are working together to secure a future for the area that includes renewable energy and products derived from forest resources. Led by Washington State University and funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) is developing a sustainable industry in the PNW that uses post-harvest wood residues to manufacture bio-jet fuel and other value-added polymer and carbon products from wood lignin. The Alliance includes public universities, government agencies and private industry.

NARA’s mission is “to provide stakeholders, interested in creating a forest residuals to bio-jet industry, with regional solutions that are economically viable, socially acceptable, and meet the high environmental standards of the Pacific Northwest.” To that end, the Alliance and its industry partners seek not only to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions, but also to augment sustainable economic development in rural communities located throughout the Pacific Northwest that rely heavily upon the forest products industry.

The Alliance is funded through a five-year grant provided by the USDA and in this, the final year of the project, NARA is producing 1,000 gallons of cellulosic-based bio-jet fuel from Northwest forest residues. Highlighting the achievement, regional aviation partner Alaska Airlines will be flying a demonstration flight next year utilizing NARA-produced cellulosic biofuel. The flight is representative of the Alliance’s mission of reducing fossil fuel emissions, and it symbolizes the growing interest in alternative fuels produced from renewable resources.


Such interest is gaining momentum at both the consumer and industrial levels, and the legislation out of Washington is following suit. As we noted in May, the EPA released proposed renewable fuel standard volumes for 2016 that represent substantial increases over 2014 volumes—a 524 percent increase, to be exact. The viability of cellulosic biofuels that can be produced on a commercial scale is an especially relevant topic for fuel-centric industries such as the aviation industry; US air carriers alone have used over 10 billion gallons of jet fuel year-to-date.

Aside from being a Washington-based regional carrier, Alaska Airlines is a natural partner for the NARA venture. In 2011, the airline became the first US carrier to fly multiple commercial passenger flights using a biofuel refined from used cooking oil, operating 75 flights between Seattle and Washington, D.C. and Seattle and Portland, Ore. Alaska Airlines has also set a goal of using a sustainable aviation biofuel blend on all flights departing from one (or more) airports by 2020.

Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines senior vice president of external relations, noted that “Alaska Airlines is thrilled to partner with NARA to help further promote sustainable aviation biofuels. Sustainable biofuels are a key to aviation’s future and critical in helping the industry and Alaska Airlines reduce its carbon footprint and dependency on fossil fuels.”

“Developing alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals represents a significant economic challenge with considerable sustainability benefits,” said Michael Wolcott, NARA co-director. “While the price of oil fluctuates, the carbon footprint of fossil fuels remains constant. NARA efforts to engage stakeholders from forest managers to potential fuel users like Alaska Airlines to lay the foundations for a bio-based, renewable fuel economy is exciting work that we believe will benefit society in the years ahead.”

As NARA seeks to raise awareness for biofuels produced from woody biomass, the organization will be hosting a “Wood-to-Biofuel” webinar series in October that coincides with National Bioenergy Day on October 21. The series will “summarize the research and results of converting forest slash to biofuel while recognizing and conducting sustainable analysis (triple bottom line).” This is an excellent opportunity for those involved with biofuels and forest resource supply chains, as well as interested members of the public, to gain insight into the process of successfully manufacturing next-generation renewable fuels.

The NARA model of bringing members of the scientific, investment, and governmental communities together in a collaboration that fosters the development of renewable sources of energy is praiseworthy. The fact that this collaboration has produced viable jet fuel from woody biomass is great news for both the commercial aviation industry and the PNW forest products industry alike.

Renewable Fuel Standards and Wood Biomass Guide

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