December 7, 2016  
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Sustainable fuel takes flight

Alaska Airlines recently became the first to fly jets fueld by alcohol-to-jet fuel (ATJ) made from sustainable US corn. The two flights departed from Seattle’s Sea-Tac Airport and flew to San Francisco International Airport and Ronald Reagan Washington (DC) National Airport using ATJ fuel produced by Gevo, Inc. Alcohol-to-jet biofuel was approved for use by ASTM International in March 2016, and is the first aviation biofuel to be certified and approved since 2011.

In a release from the company, Joseph Sprague, Alaska Airlines’ senior vice president of communications and external relations, said, “Alaska is committed to doing its part to reduce its carbon emissions. Advancing the use of alternative jet fuels is a key part of our emission reduction strategy. Gevo’s jet fuel product is an important step forward, in that it has the potential to be scalable and cost effective, without sacrificing performance.”

The road to commercializing isobutanol begins in Gevo’s laboratories in Englewood, CO. (Photo courtesy of Gevo.)

Passengers aboard the flights received a handout that included this statement: “Your aircraft will fly on a mixture of traditional petroleum and 20 percent biofuel—made from sustainable corn that is converted to alcohol then refined into biojet fuel.”

According to Alaska Airlines’ statement, the corn used for the fuel is grown and harvested by farmers who incorporate sustainable best practices from seed to harvest. One of these farmers is David Kolsrud of The Funding Farm. Kolsrud has been “low-carbon farming” for six years at his farm in Brandon, SD, using strategies to maximize corn production and minimize the use of water, fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

“I grow non-edible field corn and sell it to Gevo, which separates the nutritional protein portion of the corn for animal feed and then converts the starch from the kernel to isobutanol, which is then converted to jet fuel,” said Kolsrud. “This practice is a game-changer for traditional farmers like me, as this allows us to extend the use of our crop and create new jobs that frankly didn't exist six years ago.”

Alaska Airlines estimates that, if the airline were able to replace 20 percent of its entire fuel supply at Sea-Tac Airport with ATJ, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 142,000 metric tons of CO2—the equivalent of removing about 30,000 passenger vehicles from roads for one year.

Gevo produces the isobutanol at its fermentation facility in Luverne, Minnesota, where it also produces ethanol and related products, such as high-value animal feed. The Colorado-based company believes that, when compared to other fuel options, renewable ATJ has the potential to offer benefits to operating cost, capital cost, feedstock availability and scalability, and will translate across geographies.

“Flying a commercial flight with our ATJ made from renewable resources has been a vision of ours for many years, and it has taken many years of work to get this far,” said Gevo CEO Pat Gruber. “We believe our technology has the potential to be the lowest cost, renewable carbon-based jet fuel, given the efficacy of our technology. We look forward to moving forward with Alaska, and others in the airline industry, to make renewable jet fuel widely successful as a product that substitutes for fossil fuels, and ultimately helps to reduce carbon emissions.”

Alaska Airlines has set an ambitious goal of using sustainable aviation biofuel on all flights at one or more of its primary airports by 2020, the statement reports. To meet this milestone, the airline is collaborating with Boeing and the Port of Seattle on a Biofuel Infrastructure Feasibility Study for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

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