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WSU tapped as center of research hub on biojet fuel

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Washington State University has been named a co-leader of a new national consortium to find ways to shrink airlines’ environmental footprints even as more people take up jet travel.

Kyung M. Song – Seattle Times Washington bureau

WASHINGTON — Washington State University (WSU) has been named a co-leader of a new national consortium to find ways to shrink airlines’ environmental footprints even as more people take up jet travel.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday will announce a 10-year, $40 million grant to WSU and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to anchor a 16-school research hub to reduce airport noise and carbon-dioxide emissions, boost fuel mileage and develop bio-jet fuels.

The competitive grant — groups composed of three dozen other universities also applied — will expand the region’s   federally funded aviation research at the University of Washington and Edmonds Community College.

WSU will take the lead on a new “center of excellence” on alternative jet fuels and related issues. MIT will take the lead on noise, air quality and other environmental issues.

As part of its “NextGen” transformation, the FAA is aiming for, among other goals, a reduction in the number of people exposed to significant airport noise despite growth in air travel, and carbon-dioxide emissions in 2020 that are no greater than levels in 2005.

Transportation fuel for cars, trucks, trains, airplanes and ships is the second-largest source of heat-trapping greenhouse gases, behind electricity generation.

Alaska Airlines, Lufthansa and other carriers have operated test flights powered by cooking oil, jatropha and camelina plants and other feedstock. Some bio-jet fuel has been shown to be slightly more efficient than regular jet fuel. But carriers also are interested in renewable fuel as a financial hedge against fluctuations in petroleum prices.

Still, airlines are far from finding a reliable and affordable alternatives to what is a top expense.

The main obstacle is lack of private capital to develop potential biofuels, said Ralph Cavalieri, associate vice president for alternative energy at WSU who will direct the new FAA center.

Cavalieri said that made public investment crucial. The new research center was born out of a directive Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate subcommittee on aviation, inserted into the FAA reauthorization bill last year.

The FAA operates seven other centers of excellence, including an advanced-material research hub led by UW and Wichita State University.

In an uncommon show of unity, all eight Democrats and four Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation signed a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in support of the WSU-MIT bid.

Rep. Rick Larsen, whose district’s largest employer is Boeing’s widebody plant in Everett, said the contract reaffirms the state’s position as the world’s aerospace capital.

“The center will combine our state’s unmatched strength in aviation engineering with our unrivaled commitment to protecting the environment,” said Larsen, the ranking Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee.

Mike Bair, vice president of marketing and business development for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a statement the new center will help speed up commercialization of aviation biofuel.

Cantwell said the FAA, whose mandate is to guard the interest of the flying public, has a stake in fuel prices and their impact on carriers’ profitability. She has said investing in bio-jet fuels will help not only aviation, but boost the entire renewable-fuel industry.

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