Isobuta-what? Alaska partners with Gevo to bring biofuel to commercial flights

Alaska Airlines today operated the first commercial flights using a 20 percent blend of renewable alcohol-to-jet biofuel produced by Gevo, a renewable chemical and biofuel company. The two flights originated in Seattle with destinations of San Francisco and Washington D.C.

Alcohol-to-jet biofuel was just approved for use by ASTM International in March 2016 and is the first aviation biofuel to be certified and approved since 2011.

Fuel made of isobuta-what?

To make renewable jet fuel, Gevo starts with a non-edible field corn. First, Gevo’s process captures the protein and fiber in the corn to produce a high value animal feed product. Then, the starch (or sugars) in the corn kernels is fermented into isobutanol. This fermentation process is similar to that used to make ethanol – the type of alcohol used in alcoholic beverages. Isobutanol is then chemically converted through a Gevo-patented process into a renewable jet fuel. What they’ve created is the first carbohydrate-based, sugar-fermented fuel.

“The amazing part about this is that you can make something like a carbohydrate into jet fuel and not have to change the plane at all,” said Glenn Johnston, Gevo’s executive vice president of regulatory affairs. “We use carbohydrates – the most plentiful sugar source on earth – and we can use a variety of them.”

With its current corn-based process, Gevo produces 11 pounds of high protein animal feed for every gallon of jet fuel produced.

What makes a fuel “renewable”?

Gevo’s sustainable corn grain supply and fuel production process can achieve 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum jet fuel (using the US EPA Life Cycle emission methods).

Gevo uses renewable biomass (such as plants) as a fuel feedstock, which can be grown and harvested annually.

“What the point here is, we want to shorten the carbon dioxide cycle,” Johnston said. “So the carbon dioxide we’re emitting today, we’re putting back into the ground tomorrow.”

This is accomplished as the plants (grown for both fuel and animal feed) absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen through photosynthesis. This is the key to reducing our carbon dioxide emissions both now and in the future.

Gevo’s goal is to create a renewable fuel source. The feedstock used can be replenished through planting and harvesting into the future.

More about the project

The Gevo team of about 30 has been working since 2007 with various stakeholders throughout the aviation community to test the fuel and make sure it is safe for flight. So far, the fuel has been tested by GE, Rolls Royce, Pratt & Whitney, Honeywell and several others in the aviation industry.

“For those wondering ‘Is this fuel safe to fly?’” Johnston said. “I’ll be on that flight. So, yes.”

Eventually, Gevo plans to build a commercial plant to build and produce large commercial volumes.

For now, Alaska Airlines flights 388 from Seattle to San Francisco and 2 from Seattle to Washington, D.C. are the first to run on the new fuel.

Learn more about Alaska’s sustainability efforts at alaskaair.com/sustainability.

12 Comments on “Isobuta-what? Alaska partners with Gevo to bring biofuel to commercial flights

  1. Are your flights going to be using this fuel additive regularly? I will be flying exclusively with your airline (whenever possible) if this is the case as such bio-fuel’s reduces GHG emissions remarkably. Thank you for being a pioneer in this field.

    • Thanks for your question. First, I just want to clarify that this was not a fuel additive, but a jet fuel made from plants instead of petroleum. Alaska has set a goal of using sustainable aviation biofuel on all flights at one or more of our primary airports by 2020. While Tuesday’s flights were unique events, we hope to continue to work with fuel producers over the next few years to develop commercial volumes of sustainable aviation fuels. Later this summer, we plan to fly the first commercial flight of Alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) biofuel produced by Gevo using forest residuals as a feedstock instead of sustainable corn.

    • Does Alaska Airlines have developmental plans with Gevo to increase their ATJ Biofuel production to commercial volumes by 2020?

  2. How were the flights? I tracked the progress and they landed fine. Were any diagnostic information tracked? Was there/is there any way to gague the environmental benefits to using this alternative method of fuel? The assertion from above: “achieve 50 percent less greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum jet fuel” is very exciting!!

    • The flights were fantastic! Prior to approval for use in commercial flights, the fuel has undergone rigorous testing to ensure that it performs the same as petroleum jet fuel. Because of all the testing to show conformance of the 20 percent biofuel blend to the jet fuel standard, we do not feel that it is necessary to conduct any additional diagnostic testing.

      Sustainable aviation biofuels typically have 50-80% fewer emissions compared to petroleum jet fuel on a life-cycle basis. The amount of emission reduction achieved depends on the feedstock and the conversion technology used to produce the fuel.

  3. If I know you use this bio fuel I promise I will only buy from you. We need to care and protect our nature, look what’s happening in Finland – Snow instead of Summer. God bless you with wisdom to protect our nature.

  4. Will you guys do any public relations announcement on how great the flights went in regards to GEVO’s fuel? Also when is the other flight this summer? Will Alaska sign any contracts with GEVO in the near term or is this in 2020 potentially? Thank you Halley!

  5. You guys suck. You are mean and stingy. Bad karma on you for devaluing our miles and going revenue based. Why are you such stingy azzholes ?

    • I believe you have this airline confused with American Airlines who IS going revenue based in the very near future.

  6. I commend your airline for having the courage to even begin to use biofuel. However, I see virtually every oilman in the State of Texes fighting you and any other airline who ‘dares’ to improve the quality of life on this planet, to the bitter end. It is why we, in the 21st Century are still running our ‘Tin Lizzies’ off of fossil fuel. Keep the faith and prove me wrong.

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