Alaska Air demonstrating aviation biofuels

Nov 8, 2011

It’s a big week for aviation biofuels.

A United flight took off Monday from Houston, for the first time burning jet fuel that was made from algae-based oil. And Alaska Air begins its demonstration flights from Seattle tomorrow (Wednesday, 2 p.m.)  – with fuel made from used cooking oil. 

A pragmatic approach

Alaska Air Group says they have enough biofuel to power 75 flights between Seattle, Portland and Washington DC. 

Fuel buyer Jay Long says even though many people talk about algae as the best feedstock for making alternative jet fuel, the best solution for his airline was leftover grease from Texas.

“It’s not as much of a technical leap, as you might think. It's more of being able to do economically and at a scale that is commercially viable.”

Expensive innovation

The biofuel still costs a lot more than conventional fuel and it’s not running through the pipelines at the airport yet – instead it’s coming in via rail car and tanker truck. 

But like conventional Jet A fuel, it’s tested rigorously before it’s used. Boeing’s environmental strategist Bill Glover says he’ll be on the flight – blogging live to convey his excitement about this milestone.

There’s a push to make the NW a hub for biofuels production – the department of Agriculture recently awarded $80 million dollars to the University of Washington and WSU for biofuels research.

To read and hear more of this story, check out my feature report on npr.org