Nestled in Washington’s Snohomish County, Seattle Paine Field International Airport—while unremarkable to travelers—is a crucial hub for aviation innovation and maintenance. An initiative from Washington State University (WSU) and Snohomish County leaders is aiming to make Paine Field a nexus for testing and improving sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) made from non-petroleum materials like municipal waste and biomass. The goal: improving the impacts of aviation on both the environment and human health.
“What we’re trying to do with Paine Field is fill a gap in the current research landscape with SAF,” explained Joshua Heyne, director of WSU Tri-Cities’ Bioproducts Sciences and Engineering Laboratory. “We’re looking to facilitate the development and distribution of reference fuels for testing and evaluation.”
WSU and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) co-lead the WSU-PNNL Bioproducts Institute, which aims to decarbonize difficult-to-electrify sectors by transforming wastes into valuable materials, chemicals, and fuels.
“Sustainable aviation fuels are a core element of the Bioproducts Institute’s mission,” said Corinne Fuller, manager of PNNL’s bioenergy technologies programs and co-director of the institute. “Aviation has made significant strides in improving efficiencies, and advancing SAF will result in further improvements needed to make goals such as those set by CORSIA.”
Now, the Bioproducts Institute is establishing the first SAF repository—an idea Heyne compared to seed banks that store seeds from important plants and crops. At the SAF repository, various fuels will be stored, characterized, blended, and distributed to facilities around the world.
The need for a SAF repository
“We need to do this at a large scale because some of the impacts that aviation has on the environment, for example, need to be tested at large scales,” Heyne said.
Historically, the lack of reference SAF materials has left laboratories working with different samples from different providers in different areas, making it difficult to standardize SAF studies and testing.
“There is nowhere I could tell you to go today to get a reference material for this kind of test,” Heyne said. “You can buy SAF in volume from various vendors, but they’re not established reference materials—they haven’t been characterized in as much detail as what we plan to do, and they also have not been tested for that singular composition across as many different hardware.”
Furthermore, current aircraft are certified for fuels developed under current broad standards—but the aviation community is planning new fuel standards with emphases on environmental and human health. “Part of the work that this repository is going to support is the development of a new standard,” Heyne said.
Building the repository
The full SAF repository won’t emerge overnight. “We’re developing a temporary facility that will hopefully be stood up in the next few months,” Heyne said. “Down the line, we’re looking at developing a permanent facility.”
For the next facility, tentative plans include tiered storage and distribution, with a few samples stored at tens of thousands of gallons and many more samples stored at just a few gallons. The facility—for which the team is eyeing an eight-acre lot in Paine Field—would support large-scale fuel blending and offer resources for standardized testing, among other functions.
“We certainly have plenty of ideas of what to use those eight acres for,” Heyne said.
The imminent temporary facility will be about a quarter scale, focusing on storing a larger variety of smaller samples. “We’re working with other entities to store large volumes in other places in the country,” Heyne added.
Growing Washington’s lead in SAF
Heyne’s lab is already well-known for testing low volumes of SAF. “We get novel samples—sometimes as little as a milliliter or less—sent to us from roughly 30 different institutions across North America and Europe,” he explained. “I think we’ve received more small-volume SAF samples than anyone in the world. We’re trying to scale that to these large volumes that no one else has the capacity to do at the moment.”
“We’re delighted to be working with Josh and his team through the Bioproducts Institute,” Fuller added. “Together, we can make the Paine Field endeavor a unique contribution to the landscape of sustainable fuels and a major resource for improving the impact of aviation on human health and the environment.”