Local firms push aviation biofuels in the other Washington

By:  Hal Bernton Seattle Times staff reporter
Source: The Seattle Times

Leaders of two Seattle-based companies testified Thursday before a U.S. Senate subcommittee about plans to build plants in Washington state to produce jet biofuel that can be blended in equal parts with traditional jet fuels.

AltAir Fuels hopes to have a 100 million gallon-a-year jet biofuels plant in production in the Tacoma area by 2014. It has been working with farmers in Eastern Washington and other parts of the country to grow camelina, an oil-seed crop that the company's chief executive officer, Tom Todaro, describes "as a blue-collar relative of canola oil."

"We are pretty close to being able to getting this done, and if we can get through the next couple of years, we'll prove to all of you and the rest of the country that these fuels are sustainable, they are ready and scalable, and they are price-efficient," Todaro told a Senate Commerce subcommittee on aviation chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wa.

Imperium Renewables, which currently operates a biodiesel plant in Grays Harbor, aims to build a second facility to produce 80 million gallons a year of jet biofuel by 2014, said John Plaza, the company's president and chief executive officer.

Wednesday's hearings underscored the recent progress in moving from a test phase for aviation biofuel to a new phase focused on how to spur production.

Terry Yonkers, an assistant secretary of the Air Force, said testing showed that a 50 percent jet biofuel blend results in a cooler-burning fuel, which could have a "tremendous impact" on the wear and tear of aircraft engines, possibly extending engine life by 15 to 20 percent.

Yonkers said the Air Force plans to have jet biofuels account for half of its domestic fuels by 2016.

Billy Glover, a Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president, said an important milestone for biofuels use in commercial jet aircraft was reached on July 1 as the 50 percent blend gained international certification by ASTM International, a global standards-setting organization.

The European airline KLM plans to start using a 50 percent biofuel blend on regularly scheduled flights in the fall, and Lufthansa and other airlines also are starting to use the fuel, he said.

Glover said the blends have a higher density than traditional jet fuels, which "translates into burning less fuel per passenger mile."

There could be a big market for these fuels within the Northwest. Annually, the military and commercial aviation industry in the region consumes some 800 million gallons of aviation fuel, according to Imperium's Plaza.

But launching commercial-scale production remains a big challenge.

Plaza said his company needs $300 million to build and begin operating a jet biofuel fuel facility at Grays Harbor.

To help private companies secure financing for aviation biofuel, Cantwell has proposed a bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, that would change Defense Department rules to allow for fuel purchase contracts of up to 15 years, rather than the current five-year limit.

"The Department of Defense can play a key role by using its purchasing power to get the market for sustainable alternative aviation fuels up and running," Cantwell said in a statement.

But jet biofuel producers also have to worry about having a large and dependable supply of feedstocks to produce the fuel.

Plaza said his company could use canola, now turned into biodiesel, to produce a jet fuel for blending.

Todaro, AltAir's chief executive, has been developing camelina as a biofuel feedstock that can be grown in rotation with wheat by Northwest farmers. It requires less water and fertilizer than many traditional crops, he said.

Another company founded by Todaro, Targeted Growth, bred a camelina strain that was used to produce more than 500,000 gallons of jet biofuel at a Texas plant in a joint venture with Honeywell subsidiary UOP.

Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a program that would help shoulder some of the costs of western farmers who produce camelina in an effort to spur production on some 51,000 acres to support several jet fuel plants, including the proposed AltAir facility.