Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: Washington Claims Leadership In Biofuels

 - June 19, 2011, 10:10 PM

Washington state and its neighbors in the U.S. Pacific Northwest claim to have established an early leadership position in the development of sustainable aviation biofuels. Companies and research groups from the region believe they now understand how to develop the most promising biofuel feedstocks and how to bring them to market, and plans are under way to establish a biorefinery for jet fuel by 2014.

Last July the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN) was launched to look at biomass options in a four-state area as possible sources for renewable jet fuel. Alaska Airlines, Boeing, Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma Airport, Spokane International Airport and Washington State University spearheaded the initiative, involving a cross-section of 40 industry, academic and government entities.

The group last month produced a report addressing the need to support development of sustainable biofuels in the region, with strategies for bringing biomass feedstocks to commercial viability. SAFN’s vision is that by 2020 or soon thereafter, “all or most flights from major airports in the region will be using at least a blend of bio-based fuel that is sustainably developed,” said Ross Macfarlane, senior advisor, business partnerships with Climate Solutions, an environmental nonprofit organization managing the effort.

SAFN members are targeting biomass-derived fuels as opposed to other petroleum alternatives, sourced largely from the participating states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. “They identified a need to develop some regional approaches, flight paths, if you will, to get a significant quantity of aviation fuels from sustainable alternatives to petroleum,” said Macfarlane.

The project has identified four feedstocks as most promising: oilseeds, particularly camelina, which can be grown in rotation with wheat crops; forest residues from logging operations; solid waste and algae. “The intent is to be feedstock agnostic and to help create the conditions for success that are going to lead to a viable and sustainable industry to create fuels for aviation and other critical uses, and not just pick winners and losers,” Macfarlane said.

Washington state, with its big timber industry, is looking into wood waste and mill residue as raw material for aviation biofuel. In April this year, Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law a measure authorizing the state’s Department of Natural Resources to conduct a demonstration project on the concept, working with the state Department of Commerce, Washington State University and the University of Washington.

Among those leading the biofuel trend in Washington State is agribusiness entrepreneur Tom Todaro, founder and CEO of AltAir Fuels in Seattle. Todaro is developing a biofuel refinery with the goal of producing 100 million gallons of camelina-based jet fuel annually, supplying 5 to 10 percent of the fuel consumed at Sea-Tac Airport.

Todaro told AIN that engineering and the securing of permits are substantially completed to build the planned biofuel facility adjacent to an oil refinery in Washington. In the meantime, he hopes soon to announce the location of an interim facility on the U.S. West Coast capable of producing 10 to 20 million gallons of biofuel within a year. That would be 10 times the production of a specialty chemical plant in Texas that AltAir is leasing with UOP, now producing one to two million gallons annually.

“We’re certifying that the process we work on with UOP creates a molecule that is indistinguishable from regular Jet-A…it has all of the characteristics of Jet-A” in a 50-percent blend, Todaro said. To produce biofuel in volume, “you need science, then you need farming, then you need refining,” Todaro said. It takes “an incredible amount of work to get your feedstock growing efficiently in target geographies. We’ve spent many years and many millions of dollars creating this crop called camelina.”

According to Todaro, camelina-based biofuel is five times better than Jet-A in terms of carbon emissions. Looked at another way, he explained: you can fly five miles on biofuel and release the same amount of CO2 as flying one mile on Jet-A.

Macfarlane said the cost and volatility of petroleum-based fuel, as well as concern over the environment, is driving development of aviation biofuels. “The aviation industry has incredibly thin and challenging profit margins, and one of the biggest variables is the 100 percent dependence on petroleum fuels,” Macfarlane said. “Their challenge is managing the price volatility and supply volatility that is presented in that market. I think the question for most of the aviation stakeholders isn’t whether they are going to invest in alternatives, but what those alternatives are going to be and how they can quickly get there.”