SEATTLE - The FAA announced a $40 million grant to Washington State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to lead extensive research into development of aviation bio fuels.
The grant is intended to establish a Center of Excellence, with both WSU and MIT heading a team of universities that also include the University of Washington, Oregon State, Boston University, Purdue, the University of Illinois, Stanford and eight others.
The schools are asked to develop research in a variety of areas ranging from new alternative aviation fuels to studying the wear the new fuels might put on aircraft engines, even differences those fuels might make to aircraft noise.
"We've established a goal to use one billion gallons of alternative jet fuel by 2018." Said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in an interview with KING5 News. "That's not very far off."
Huerta says the government wants to cut consumption of petroleum based jet fuels by two percent a year. But the grant is really seed money. More that 50 other companies, government agencies and organizations are expected to contribute to the research, and include Boeing, Airbus, Cessna, Gulfstream, the Massachusetts Port Authority, Argonne National Laboratory, Airports Council International--North America, Honeywell, General Electric Aircraft Engines, Rolls Royce, Pratt and Whitney and airlines including United, Delta and Alaska.
"This is an effort to jump start research." Added Huerta. "We expect that is going to leverage matching funds from local governments, industry partners and the universities themselves."
Boeing, Alaska Airlines, United and other aerospace and fuel companies have been experimenting with alternative fuels for nearly a decade. Testing ranges from the non-food camelina plant, an oil seed grown across the northern plains, to other alternatives made from algae to spent cooking oil used to fry chickens.
In its request for proposals, the universities were asked to develop fuel performance testing. Huerta said, "Washington State and MIT put forward and great proposal which represents wonderful collaboration between government, industry and the university community which really answer the question. How do we advance the deployment of alternative fuels in aviation?"
"WSU is a land grant school. It has a long history in plant science and engineering." said Ralph Cavalieri, the Associate Vice President for Alternative Energy and Director of the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. "That is what this is all about. Plant science and engineering. Bringing it all together."
"This innovative partnership supports President Obama's national plan to address climate change," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
Airlines have expressed strong interest in alternative fuels as a way to shield themselves from volatile oil prices, as well as a way to reduce their carbon footprint. Airlines say fuel is now their largest single expense.
In 2011, Alaska Airlines and its regional subsidiary Horizon Air flew 75 regularly scheduled flights both cross country and regionally using a 20% blend of bio fuel refined from cooking oil and chicken fat. That fuel was priced at $17 a gallon. A big question is how much industrial scale production of bio fuels would bring down the cost.
WSU and the UW have already been deeply involved in bio fuel research. A key idea under study in the northwest is using logging slash and other wood waste from Northwest forests. WSU says one ton of dry logging slash can be turned into 42 gallons of refined jet fuel, and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell said that estimates are that there's nearly 17 million tons of unused forest bio-mass available.
Wood waste has been advanced in part as a way to make removal of flammable forest debris more economical and to hold down the risk of wild land fire. Environmental organizations want to guard against too much woody debris being taken from the forest as it is part of a healthy eco system. But even using part of that debris means that half of the petroleum based jet fuel could be replaced at all northwest airports, even military ones in the four northwestern states, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana.
WSU's Dr. Cavalieri says one of the keys is to source fuels close to where they're grown. Wood waste in the Northwest, tropical plants in Hawaii, which is why the University of Hawaii is also one of the 14 schools taking part.
The grant would provide $4 million a year for each of the 10 years the program would run.