Alaska Airlines pioneers use of corn-based biofuel on two jet flights

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SEA-TAC AIRPORT – Alaska airlines made aviation history today, when it flew two planes partially fueled by “biofuel” made from fermented corn.

The airline fueled up two jets at Sea-Tac Airport.

One headed south, to San Francisco, the other east, to Washington, DC.

“We aren’t serving corn on our flights today,” said Joseph Sprague, Senior Vice President of Communications and External Affairs at Alaska Airlines.  “But we will be burning corn on our flights.”

The aviation fuel is a 20%  blend of a kerosene-like biofuel.

It’s made from corn in a fermentation process in Minnesota.

The recently certified fuel underwent extensive testing.

“It is fully certified and fully safe for use in aircraft.  This is a company that’s really been a pioneer in its field,” said Sprague.

The airline is making moves to become a leader in reducing its carbon footprint, and at the same time encourage development of more aviation biofuels.

A company called GEVO has been working on the fuel for nearly a decade.  The firm is a renewable chemicals and next-generation biofuels company focused on commercialization of alternatives to petroleum-based products.

“To me this is a big deal,” said Pat Gruber, Ph.D., the company’s CEO, “because we started working on jet fuel nine years ago.”

Six of those years were dedicated to the various levels of testing required.

“We start with corn as a feedstock.  We grind it up.  We do a fermentation to produce a chemical called isobutanol,” said Gruber.  “It’s really brewing.  We take that alcohol and then we do chemistry with in in the chemical process and produce kerosene and it actually is a kerosenic jet fuel.”

But there’s more to the story.  What’s left over after the process, can be used to feed livestock.

“We also along the way produce a very large quantity of animal feed, high-protein animal feed.  So for every one acre of corn, you produce about 300 gallons of jet fuel and two tons of high-value, high-protein animal feed,” said Gruber.

The company has a commercial operation to produce the fuel in Minnesota.  It also has a demonstration plant to produce the kerosene in Texas.

“We see great potential for this in the future.  We’re at a demonstration-size scale of production, currently,” Gruber said.

“We look forward to building this business up.  We do see the day when it will be competitive with petroleum based products,” he said.  “We can substitute and get rid of these fossil resources, greenhouse emissions and all the other pollution that goes with it.  And that’s what our game is all about.”

One man who will grow the corn, is a third-generation farmer in Brandon, South Dakota.  David Kolsrud says the satellite technology and soil analysis used today, have brought some big changes to farming since his great-grandfather’s day.

“My great-grandfather when he homesteaded the land, he farmed with oxen.”  said David Kolsrud, a third-generation farmer in Brandon, South Dakota.  “He converted over to horses.  My dad farmed with horses.  He converted to tractors.   Here I am today, we’re converting over to technology, growing corn in a very sustainable way that can be utilized as a jet fuel to be supplying jets without using fossil fuels.  This is really the wave of the future.”


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