SEA-TAC INT'L AIRPORT, Wash. -- Alaska Airlines and its regional carrier Horizon Air are trying something that hasn't been done -- fly regularly scheduled flights using a mix of aviation biofuel.
The mix is 20-percent biofuel refined from used cooking oil, with the rest comprised of traditional petroleum-based jet fuel.
Alaska will fly one 737 flight each day this month cross-country to Washington, D.C, and six flights a day from Sea-Tac to Portland, Oregon.
But can airlines obtain enough biofuel as the price drops? Demand could spike if the price drops below the cost of petroleum-based fuel, which this year is hovering around $3.00 per gallon.
Currently, regulations permit airlines to use up to a 50-50 mix of biofuel and petroleum-based jet fuel. Alaska Airlines and others are experimenting below that percentage because the cost of biofuel is still high. The refined cooking oil used by Alaska costs $17.00 per gallon. But the industry that provides biofuel is growing and the expectation is for the price to drop dramatically.
"What's important about this fuel is that it's a drop-in fuel. And what that means is, it's chemically identical to conventional jet fuel," said Robert Ames with Dynamic Fuels, a company that helped produce the biofuel used by Alaska. "That's a game changer."
Dynamic Fuels is a joint venture with Tyson Foods -- a company that can supply the used cooking oil in industrial-sized quantifies.
How much used cooking oil is out there? Think of all the pre-packaged, pre-cooked products in your grocery store and you start to get an idea.
"As we bring more of these feedstocks online, these new feedstocks, we're going to see the prices come down. It's simply a function of scale," said Ames.
Ames said Tyson alone produces hundreds of millions of gallons of used cooking oil. After refining a multi-step refining process, the cloudy brown cooking oil -- much like you'd see in a frying pain in your own kitchen -- is a completely clear. It's a clean liquid packing enough energy punch to get a jetliner into the air.
The high price of oil has helped drive the biofuel boom. From 2001 to 2008, the price of jet fuel for domestic airlines grew from 56 cents per gallon to nearly $3.70 per gallon. And while that price is now around $3.00 per gallon, there is little optimism that the price of petroleum-based jet fuel will fall much lower, and there's fear it could go higher.
"I think we all believe at some point petroleum products are going to run out," said Keith Loveless, Alaska Air's V.P. for corporate affairs. "More competition means lower fuel prices."
U.S.-based airlines use 17.5 billion gallons -- or 414 million barrels of jet fuel -- each year, according to the Air Transport Association. How much of that demand can be filled by biofuel remains to be seen. But considering that just five years ago aviation biofuel was an experiment going on in the garage of a Boeing engineer, the pace of biofuel grown is amazing.
"For most airlines flying today, fuel is the number one operating cost," said Billy Glover, Boeing Commercial Airplanes V.P. for environmental and aviation policy. "In the last five years, it's gone from 'unobtaineum' -- it was just sky high -- down to the prices we're seeing today...I expect the trajectory will continue down and in the next few years it's going to be at parity."
Glover said he expects biofuel prices could one day go below the cost of petroleum and that day may not be far off.
Where is all that biofuel going to come from? Used cooking oil is just one source, or feedstock in industry parlance.
Earlier this week, United Airlines announced it signed a letter of intent with San Francisco-based Solazyme to purchase 20 million gallons of biofuel each year. Solazyme's fuel is derived from algae, one of the most promising sources of alternative energy. United said it plans to start taking deliveries in 2014. On Monday, the airline flew a 737-800 from Houston to Chicago on a 40 percent blend of the algae-based fuel.
Here in the Northwest, farmers are encouraged to raise camelina, a non-food oil seed that can be grown without irrigation during fallow periods on wheat fields. Phillippe Poutissou, V.P. for Marketing at Bombardier, the Canadian manufacturer of the Q400 turbo-prop planes used by Horizon, said experiments will soon be underway to grow camelina in northern parts of Canada above the latitudes where wheat can be practically grown.
In the U.S., the Northwest, particularly Washington, is one of the most promising producers of biomass that can be converted into biofuel. According to the National Renewal Energy Laboratory, sections of western Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana could produce more than 500,000 tons of biomass each year.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided $80 million in federal grants to be administered by the University of Washington and Washington State University for developing a wood-waste biomass industry. That program could restart old saw mills and other infrastructure to process the waste as it moves through a refinement process and is converted to jet fuel. It would also put people to work.
What are flights powered by biofuel like? I flew on Horizon flight 2181 to Portland on Wednesday, one of the first two Alaska biofuel flights and the first use of biofuel to power a scheduled flight aboard a regional aircraft.
On board, Peggy Hawker said she likes the environmental benefits of biofuel.
"I think it's a good idea, I hope it works. and I hope the prices do go down," she said.
Biofuel promises to reduce the carbon footprint for airlines. While biofuels emit carbon, the plants they are derived from consume carbon dioxide as they grow. The biofuels also may produce less soot and particulates than oil-based products as they are burned. And the industry has promised to only exploit biofuels that don't compete with food crops like corn.
To make sure everything about biofuel was up to snuff before passenger flights started, last week Horizon technical pilot Steve Bush tested the Bombardier Q400 by putting it through its paces.
"It proved to me there was no difference, between the two fuels. We did a flight with the baseline jet fuel, and then we did a flight with the biofuel," he said.
Would biofuel make passengers nervous? There were plenty of announcements on the intercom on Wednesday that flight 2181 was a historic biofuel flight, but most passengers dozed off once airborne.
"It's been in the news enough, I think people are used to the idea that the technology is there, so we were ready for that, but I don't think we anticipated a lot of resistance at all," said Chief Pilot LaMar Haugaard.