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Alaska Air flight uses trees for fuel

The airline makes a "new sustainable alternative jet fuel" from limbs, stumps and branches left over after a timber harvest in the Pacific Northwest.

Robert Hubner

Your next Alaska Airlines flight might be powered by twigs.

The airline on Monday flew what it called the world's first commercial flight using a "new sustainable alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals from the Pacific Northwest -- the limbs, stumps and branches that are left over after a timber harvest or forest thinning of managed forests on private land."

The flight, from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., was powered by a 20 percent blend of the new biofuel produced by the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. NARA partner Gevo adapted its technology to convert cellulosic sugars from wood waste into renewable isobutanol. The isobutanol was then converted into Gevo's alcohol-to-jet fuel.

"Using forest residuals for biofuel feedstock is exciting because it does not compete with food production; air pollution is cut by reducing slash pile burning; removal of residuals prepares the forest floor for replanting; and the new industry of woody biomass collection and conversion helps create jobs in rural economies," Alaska Air said. "Also, forest residuals are abundant and can be sustainably supplied from private lands."

This isn't the first time Alaska Air has used biofuel to power its jets. In June, it flew two planes using a blend produced from the nonedible portion of corn. The company said sustainable alternative jet fuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent to 80 percent over the life cycle of the fuel. The flight on Monday emitted about 70 percent less carbon dioxide than traditional jet fuel.