Biofuel boost: Waste wood helps power jet

Biofuel bottles
Sample bottles of biofuel sit on an Alaska Airlines counter at Sea-Tac. (Credit: Alaska Airlines)

Alaska Airlines says it sent a Boeing 737 jet on the first commercial airline flight that was partially fueled by branches, stumps and other leftovers from forests in the Pacific Northwest.

The jet took off this morning from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and headed for Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., with its tanks full of a new type of biofuel blend.

Twenty percent of the jet fuel came from wood waste that was collected during timber harvests or thinning operations on land owned by Weyerhaeuser in Oregon, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe in Washington and the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribes in Montana, plus rejected wood fibers from Cosmo Specialty Fibers in Cosmopolis, Wash.

In a typical timber harvest, some of the leftover limbs, branches and stumps are left behind to replenish the land and provide cover. The rest is typically pushed into a pile and burned.

Those practices provided an opportunity for the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, a public-private consortium led by Washington State University. Researchers took advantage of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to demonstrate a technology that converts the excess waste wood into isobutanol.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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