Washington State University research on aviation biofuels has attracted the interest of one of the world’s largest commercial air carriers.

Delta Air Lines, as part of a $2 million investment along with its partner Northwest Advanced Bio-fuels LLC (NWABF), is studying the potential for a sustainable biofuel refinery in Washington state, where researchers already have shown that wood waste can be converted into aviation fuel.

The sustainable biofuel would be produced from locally sourced forest residuals such as limbs and branches that remain after the harvesting of managed forests.

Research done by the collaborative Northwest Advanced Renewable Alliance (NARA Project) first demonstrated the viability of forest residuals as a feedstock for sustainable aviation biofuel. The fuel produced by the NWABF facility in Washington State is expected to be used in Delta operations at Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

Delta Air Lines announced that it expects the feasibility study to be complete by mid-2020. At that time, Delta will evaluate the next steps in moving forward with the project’s development.

NWABF’s decision to build a biorefinery in Washington State was largely based on the feedstock supply chain and related infrastructure information published by the NARA project.

WSU co-directed the five-year research and educational NARA Project, which successfully converted cellulose-rich, discarded wood products into a viable renewable fuel used by commercial airlines. The groundbreaking research was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA). Post-harvest forest residuals have been used as feedstocks for two different sustainable aviation fuel production pathways that are recognized by the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM).

Discarded wood products
WSU co-directed the five-year research and educational NARA Project, which successfully converted cellulose-rich, discarded wood products into a viable renewable fuel used by commercial airlines.

Access to continuous supplies of qualified feedstock is one of the key elements to reduce the risk of using woody biomass for renewable fuel production.

“Without the research and collaborative efforts of the NARA Project team and the investment made by USDA-NIFA almost ten years ago, it would be very difficult to launch the feasibility study, even with Delta’s financial participation, within a reasonable period of time,” said Chris Whitworth, Director of Project Development, NWABF. “We are excited to commercially advance the production of sustainable aviation biofuel that will help meet the increases in demand for renewable jet fuel, address the need to lower the carbon footprint of commercial flights, and provide the quality required for the aviation industry over the next 20 years.”

USDA-NIFA’s $39.6 million grant not only supported research on developing biofuels and biochemicals but also helped to foster the regional supply chain coalitions such as the partnership between Delta and NWABF, which could lead to the development of a regional biofuel industry.

“All of the many hardworking members of the NARA Project team, which include researchers from multiple universities, professionals from private sector companies and government agencies, educators from K-12, and members of Native American Tribes are pleased that the USDA-NIFA’s investment in the development of sustainable aviation fuel has informed the project of Delta and NWABF,” said Michael Wolcott, WSU Regents Professor and NARA Project Co-Director.

“NARA Project research demonstrates that using forest harvest residuals to produce sustainable aviation fuels, not only reduces emissions from the aviation sector but also provides for much needed jobs in the rural and timber-dependent regions of the Pacific Northwest,” Wolcott said.

Michael Wolcott standing behind discarded wood products.
Michael Wolcott

The NARA project accelerated the cutting-edge research and development that created sustainable biofuels from managed forest residuals and evaluated the economic, environmental, and societal benefits and impacts associated with the use of the unused woody material from local managed forests. NARA’s 32 members organization from private industry, academia, and government laboratories took a holistic approach to building an aviation supply chain and resulted in over 50 peer-reviewed research publications, a biofuels webinar series, and a NARA Knowledge Base that provides an ongoing clearinghouse of biofuel information.

“The announcement by Delta and NWABF and its investment of $2 million in participating in the development of a Washington State based biofuel production facility is further proof of the value of federal research in advancing renewable energy, creating extra income sources for forest product companies, and bringing manufacturing jobs back to rural Washington,” said Bill Goldner, Biofuels National Program Lead for USDA-NIFA.

“The NARA Project team is immensely grateful for the partnership with our funding partner USDA-NIFA and the opportunity to do transformational research and educational projects that are helping to create a green economy here in the state of Washington,” Wolcott said. “WSU applauds the efforts of Delta and NWABF to use the results of the NARA Project to study the feasibility of producing exceptional quality sustainable aviation biofuels on a large scale from renewable, forestry-based feedstock resources here in Washington State.”

Learn more about the NARA Project and the NWABF.