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Cross-Country Airline Flight Powered By Logging Slash

A project to demonstrate that jets could someday be powered by logging leftovers from Northwest forests gets a culminating test Monday morning. A Boeing 737 is scheduled to take off with fuel tanks filled partly with a wood-based jet fuel.

Alaska Airlines fueled a regularly scheduled cross-country flight from Seattle to Washington, DC with a blend of 80 percent regular jet fuel and 20 percent "biojet." In a sign of how safe the makers think this fuel is, the test flight will carry newly reelected members of Congress back to Washington, D.C., for a lame duck session.

A $40 million, five year grant from the USDA funded the consortium of university labs and private industry that refined the biofuel. Washington State University Professor Ralph Cavalieri, project director at the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, said dozens of previous test flights have taken off with alternative jet fuel.

"What is unique about this one is that in the past the alternative jet fuels have been made from vegetable oil or animal oil or reclaimed fats and so on,” Cavalieri said. “But we are using woody waste, forest slash piles."

Cavalieri said slightly more than 1,000 gallons of biojet fuel were produced for this project using limbs and branches left over from Weyerhaeuser Company and Muckleshoot and Flathead Nation tribal logging operations.

The processing, conversion and purification of that wood waste into highly refined jet fuel borrowed elements from pulp and paper production and ethanol manufacturing. It involved companies in Oregon, Colorado, Missouri, Texas and Canada.

"We went all over America to get this done," Cavalieri said.

He said another aspect of the project looked at the availability of woody debris to supply a potential renewable jet fuel industry in the Pacific Northwest.

"The answer is unequivocally yes," Cavalieri said. "It's clear that there is sufficient resource in the region to supply SeaTac and other airports in the area."

"Can you do this economically? At the moment the answer is no, but we are continuing to work on that," Cavalieri said.

Monday's takeoff represents a second round of demonstration flights by Alaska Airlines this year. In June, the Seattle-based airline blended a biofuel refined from fermented field corn into the fuel used for two commercial flights. A renewable fuels startup named Gevo produced that corn-based biofuel. Gevo also contributed know-how to the processing of the wood debris converted into fuel for Monday's flight.

Alaska Airlines said its planes do not have to be adapted to use the renewable fuel blend.

"From the pilot's standpoint there is no difference," Alaska Senior Vice President Joe Sprague said.

Sprague noted the Seattle-based airline participated in biofuel test flights with various partners starting in 2011 to show there is demand for renewable aviation fuels.

"We really want to go from demo flight to daily flight," Sprague said in an interview. "We feel good that we're starting to have some good experience under our belt."

And Sprague said Monday's demonstration "has a sweet spot associated with it."

"This one is neat because the source material is Pacific Northwest originated forest residual products," he said.

Sprague speculated that we are probably some number of years away from jet biofuel being available broadly across the country, but he said it might become routine sooner in the Pacific Northwest.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.