SEATTLE -- In 2011, Alaska Airlines was the first carrier in the country to fly regular passenger carrying flights using bio-fuel. It replaced 20 percent of the jet fuel with a crystal clear liquid - refined industrial cooking oil that started out as a cloudy brown color and cost $17 a gallon.
Alaska flew 75 flights using the fuel with the hope that the price would drop and the supply of bio-fuel would increase.
That day is approaching fast. In 2018, the airline has signed a deal with a Hawaiian company to provide millions of gallons of bio fuel to replace jet fuel on flights returning from Hawaii, which constitutes about 20-percent of its business. There is a major reason why Hawaii will lead off.
"Fuel is imported, so it's much more expensive than other areas of the country," said Carol Sim, Alaska's Director of Environmental Affairs. Under revised international aviation standards, airlines can use a bio-fuel blend of 50% bio fuel to 50% jet fuel.
Alaska worked closely with Boeing, which is deep into promoting bio-fuel development behalf of its airline customers. And what began as a garage experiment has inside of a decade become a huge growth area for the state.
Washington state a mecca for bio-fuel development
Washington state has become a mecca for bio-fuel development. Major federal grants are going to Washington State University and the University of Washington to develop bio fuels from so called feed stocks like logging slash.
It's also spawned companies that are creating other companies. One of those companies, just two years old, is Seattle-based Matrix Genetics. In its labs along Lake Union, the company is amping up the oil producing capability of algae, also known as cyanobacteria.
"Cyanobacteria in ancient oceans settled to the bottom and became the oil that we call fossil fuel today," said Jim Roberts, the company's chief scientific officer. "And what we're doing here at Matrix is accelerating the process at which cyanobacteria make oil."
Roberts claims that if the U.S. used just three percent of its land area for large algae ponds, “that would be sufficient to provide all of our domestic fuel needs."
It's not that burning the fuel from bio-mass like cyanobacteria doesn't produce carbon. It does. But the bacteria consumes carbon as it grows, which creates a carbon neutral cycle once the industry gets rolling.
Matrix Genetics said it's partnering with a large energy company that remains un-named that will actually refine the oil the algae produces. Matrix's job is to create the strains of bacteria that are able to produce more oil for the same amount of light, kind of an amped up photosynthesis.