In the five years since Dutch carrier KLM first shuttled 171 passengers from Amsterdam to Paris in a Boeing 737 fueled by used cooking oil, an impressive number of passenger-carrying commercial aircraft across the world have taken flight with an emissions-decreasing assist from alternative jet fuel derived from algae, plant byproducts, agricultural waste oils and other forms of organic matter.

While all of these biofuel-powered flights are commendable, you’ve got to hand it to Seattle-based Alaska Airlines — North America’s seventh largest — for keeping things truly local when it comes to sourcing biofuel-ready materials.

After all, what’s the first thing you think of when you think of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest aside from mountains, rain and Frasier Crane?

Forests!

Indeed, it was the great forests of the Pacific Northwest — specifically “excess forest residuals” — that helped to power a one-off demonstration flight that made the five-hour journey from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., earlier this week.

Carrying 163 passengers, including a small handful of members of the U.S. House of Representatives hailing from Washington state, Alaska Airlines Flight 4 has been heralded as the first commercial flight to use renewable jet fuel sourced from forest residuals — that is, the limbs, stumps, branches and other arborous scraps left behind after sustainably managed forests are harvested.

You can learn more about the trip in the video below:

As Alaska Airlines points out, normally surplus forest biomass is piled and burned. But thanks to the efforts of the Washington State University-headed Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) and its member organizations, logging leftovers collected from forests owned by the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, the Confederated Salish Kootenai tribes and timber behemoth Weyerhaeuser have served a much greater and cleaner purpose. Surplus wood fibers from Cosmos Specialty Fibers, a pulp mill in Grays Harbor County, Washington, also provided woody biomass for the renewable jet fuel project.

The forestry byproduct-based fuel was developed by NARA partner, Colorado-based biofuels company Gevo, which previously worked with Alaska Airlines on a corn waste biofuel blend used on select flights this summer. To create the fuel, cellulosic sugars were extracted from woody biomass and converted into isobutanol, which was then converted into alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) fuel. The airline notes that the Gevo-developed wood biofuel is “chemically indistinguishable” from standard jet A fuel.

In total, 1,080 gallons of the wood-based biofuel blend was used for the experimental flight. Another product of the Pacific Northwest, a Boeing 737-800, performed the actual flight.

In a press release issued by Alaska Airlines, the carrier notes that the single flight, which emitted roughly 70 percent less CO2 than a flight powered strictly by traditional, petroleum jet fuel, has a “minimal impact” on its overall greenhouse gas emissions. However, it the airline were to replace just 20 percent of its fuel supply at its Sea-Tac hub with alternative jet fuel, an estimated 142,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions would be curbed. That’s the same as removing 30,000 cars from the road for a year.

"Here in the Pacific Northwest, we know that the natural environment that surrounds us is what makes living here so special,” Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, a passenger on Alaska’s inaugural/experimental wood scrap-powered flight, remarks. “We have a tremendous opportunity in our region to build a new green economy and find innovative solutions to address climate change for our health and future generations, as this project highlights.”

In addition to seriously decreased emissions, a Northwest-based airline tapping into abundant and readily available forest residuals to produce renewable aviation fuel has other environmental and economical perks. For starters, the prompt collection and removal of excess tree-parts — an activity that can help spur new jobs in rural areas — readies the forest floor for replanting while the air pollution associated with post-harvest slash pile burning, a standard form of wildfire mitigation, is eliminated.

Alaska Airlines experiments with wood waste-based biofuel Alaska Airlines describes tree-scrap in its based biofuel blend as being 'chemically indistinguishable' from traditional, oil-based jet fuel. (Photo: Alaska Airlines)

Sounds like a no brainer, right? Like with other biofuels, there is, however, a major caveat in the form of increased cost. Unfortunately, oil-based jet fuel is the cheapest option for major commercial airlines. The cost of using alternative fuel blends on a widespread, day-to-day basis is decreasing but still prohibitive.

This week’s first-of-its-kind Seattle-to-D.C. demonstration flight cost nearly $40 million to pull off — funds provided by a grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Alaska Airlines, already regarded as the most fuel-efficient U.S. carrier, has no plans for tree limb-powered flights in the future. Yet now that the expensive part — the research and development phase — has been conquered, there’s always the chance that Alaska Airline customers might get the chance to experience wood-fueled air travel on future trips to Spokane, Sitka or Palm Springs in the not-so-distant future.

Via [Seattle Times]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.