EVERETT, Wash., March 28, 2023—Washington State has long since been a leader in the aerospace industry with over 1,300 aerospace-related companies employing more than 136,000 people. But now the state is leading the industry’s next chapter in cleaner and greener aircraft fuel by establishing the world’s first Research and Development Center for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) at Snohomish County-owned Paine Field.
“Snohomish County is defined by our beautiful and abundant natural resources – protecting them is central to our way of life. We are also the global heart of cutting-edge commercial aerospace manufacturing, which has been an important economic driver of the county for over 50 years,” said Executive Somers during a press conference Tuesday. “With our history and resources, Snohomish County is the ideal place for businesses to invest in trailblazing climate change solutions. This R&D Center for Sustainable Aviation Fuels is a foundational component of our long-term commitment to generate new jobs in environmentally sustainable sectors and help decarbonize aviation.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Agency, the U.S. Transportation Sector accounts for 27% of all Green House Gas (GHG) emissions in 2020 of which aircraft is 8% of this sector. Since the 1950s, today’s aircraft are over 80% more fuel efficient consuming an average of 3.5 liters per passenger per 100 km with the Boeing 787 consuming less than 3 liters per 100 passenger km.
SAF’s are a biofuel with similar properties and safety requirements as conventional jet fuel used in aircraft but with a smaller carbon footprint. These certified “Jet-A1” fuels are made by blending conventional kerosene (fossil-based) with renewable hydrocarbon. Currently, SAFs are used as a “drop-in” replacement to conventional petroleum-based jet fuel that when combined called a blend. The minimal acceptance blend is 10% SAF to a high of 50%. The goal is a certified 100% replacement blend of SAF to conventional jet fuel.
A huge benefit to SAFs than alternative green aviation solutions such as electric and hydrogen powered aircraft fleets is the minimal disruption to implement into existing infrastructure. It is cost beneficial to ensure that manufacturers do not have to redesign engines nor aircraft, and that fuel suppliers and airports do not have to build new fuel delivery systems.
The R&D Center is made possible through a partnership with Washington State University (WSU) and will be the world’s first-ever SAF repository of its type for advancing sustainable aviation fuel technologies and serve the global needs for reference samples to support research, the county says. The Center will also be the only facility to collect, sample, and distribute SAF at a scale needed for widespread use in the largest aircrafts.
The announcement came at a press conference held in front of Paine Field’s Propellor Airports building Tuesday, March 28, featuring Snohomish County Executive Dave Sommers, Senator Marko Liias (D-Mukilteo), who also chairs the State Senate Transportation Committee, Director of the WSU Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Lab Dr. Josh Heyne, and Aerospace Futures Alliance (AFA) President and Chief Executive Officer Emily Wittman as speakers.
Following the presser, WSU Graduate student Harrison Yang then demonstrated how SAF is significantly “greener” than conventional jet fuel through a series of tests showing the degree of carbon buildup on beakers.
Snohomish County’s Paine Field Airport, a major hub of aviation and aerospace in the region, supports over 158,000 jobs and generates nearly $60 billion annually for the economy, Executive Sommers said Tuesday. However, the continued success of commercial aviation depends on addressing the industry’s carbon emissions that contribute to global climate change he added.
In Snohomish County, aviation is estimated to have accounted for 5% of Snohomish County’s total community-wide greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, which represents a 23% increase from 2015 levels, according to the county.
Paine Field was determined to be the ideal location for the upcoming SAF R&D Center due to its proximity to the production of medium and long-haul aircraft—planes that seat at least 100 passengers and fly at least 150 minutes. These aircraft make up 73% of carbon emissions in commercial aviation.
The facility will conclude its preliminary designs this year, rolling out operations in a temporary facility by the end of April, and commence construction sometime in 2024. Start-up funding comes from a Senator Marko Liias-backed $6.5 million proviso proposed in the upcoming State Senate Transportation Budget, which officially publishes tomorrow morning.
The county has been working with Sen. Liias on this project since late last fall, Snohomish County Councilwoman Stephanie Wright told the Lynnwood Times, and the county is currently in the works of pursuing additional funding from the federal government.
“The promise of sustainable aviation fuel is not just to create great jobs and sustainability for our aerospace sector into the future but it’s also to ensure that the neighbors of facilities like this can breathe clean air while we continue to operate our economy,” said Sen. Liias.
Last year Sen. Liias led the effort in passing the State’s $16 billion Move Ahead Washington Transportation package premised on decarbonizing Washington’s transportation sector while growing the economy. That package included funding for sustainable aviation which aligns with the R&D’s objectives.
Rep. Brandy Donaghy is sponsoring the proviso at the House level and County Executive’s Office have been also working with U.S. Representatives Rick Larsen, who is the Ranking Member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and U.S. Senators Patty Murray, and Maria Cantwell for federal backing.
“I’m excited about the opportunity for Snohomish County to step forward as a leader in sustainable aviation fuel development, with an eye towards a healthier future for all,” said Rep. Brandy Donaghy in a prepared statement.
With the R&D Center for SAF, the County and its partners hope to change the industrial landscape by leading the world in the development, distribution, and adoption of new technologies to reduce the economy’s dependence on carbon-based fuels. It plans to achieve this goal by testing SAF samples, investigating SAF production methods and its impacts on human health and the environment, and testing SAF samples large scale (by the thousands of gallons) needed to ensure safety and bring new fuels and products to the market.
As it stands SAF fuel costs two to ten times more (depending on waste-based sources or synthetic fuels using carbon capture) than conventional jet fuel, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This is largely due to smaller production runs and outdated technology Josh Heyne, Director of the WSU Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Lab, told the Lynnwood Times who was convinced that with newer technologies and increasing economies of scale SAF would become a more competitive option.
The Center at Paine Field will host a “bank” of SAF samples from commercial and experimental production methods from around the world. In effect the county says the repository will “do for SAF development what seed banks do for agricultural research.”
What we’re really hoping is to become a place where we can train new workers in this technology in both testing and using these fuels,” said County Executive Somers. “It’s kind of a seed for future jobs. We know the industry has to move to sustainable fuels and that can all happen here. So, this center will be a generator for future workers.”