On Monday, an Alaska Airlines flight took off in Seattle and touched down in Washington, DC. As it flew, fossil fuels made from material that sat in the ground for millions of years burned, as they do every day in our travels. This flight used fewer fossil fuels than it normally would have, though, as the jet fuel was blended with 20 percent isobutanol, which began its life in forests of the Pacific Northwest. As trees were cut down for various uses, branches and other unusable pieces of woods were diverted from their usual fiery fate, and the cellulose in the wood was converted into the biofuel isobutanol. 1,080 gallons of that renewable fuel then helped move a plane full of people across the country.

The flight marks the first time a commercial airline has flown passengers using the tree-based fuel. Leading up to this single air trip was $39.6 million in research funding and five years of work by the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Washington State University, and the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance.

With the number of air travelers expected to double over the next 20 years, airlines need to find a way to accommodate those extra passengers while adhering to emissions guidelines. Airlines are turning their attention to renewable fuels. In 2011, ASTM International, which develops technical standards for various industries, approved the use of up to 50 percent biofuel blends in commercial and military aircraft. In recent years, we've seen United Airlines invest in alternative fuel company Fulcrum Bioenergy and FedEx buying millions of gallons of fuel from Red Rock Biofuels. Virgin Atlantic flew its first biofuel flight in 2008. Boeing's been exploring algal biofuels and renewable diesel for a while, too.

While Alaska Airlines isn't the first to use alternative fuels in air travel – the same airline used corn-based biofuel in previous tests – this flight demonstrates yet another, more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. "This is just one flight today," says Joe Sprague, Alaska Airlines senior vice president for communications and external relations. "But can you imagine if all of our flights out of Sea-Tac were operating with 20 percent of their fuel sourced from biofuels? That would be the equivalent of taking 30,000 cars off the highways here in the Seattle region."

Now, the challenge is reigning in the cost of alternative jet fuels. The supplier for the Alaska Airlines flight, Gevo, hopes to get the price of isobutanol between $3.50 and $4.50 a gallon by the end of the year.

Related Video:

Share This Photo X