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Alaska Airlines, Microsoft and carbon capture firm join forces to develop sustainable fuels

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An Alaska Airlines plane ascending into sparse clouds.

Most existing sustainable fuel options are biofuels, which are made out of animal fat or used cooking oil. Those present their own sustainability challenges. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

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Alaska Airlines and Microsoft have announced a new partnership with a carbon capture startup called Twelve, which has developed a process to convert carbon dioxide into sustainable jet fuel.

For Microsoft, it’s part of the company’s strategy to reduce its carbon footprint, much of which is driven by business travel. While a steep drop in air travel during the pandemic cut aviation emissions in half, demand is bouncing back and so is pressure to curb the environmental impact.

The aviation industry has proven much harder to wean from fossil fuels than, say, ground transportation, where viable alternatives are increasingly available.

When it comes to cars and trucks, the sustainable future is all about going electric — take out internal combustion engines and drop in a battery. That’s a challenge with airplanes, said Dan Rutherford at the International Council on Clean Transportation.

“Aircraft are very mass-sensitive,” he said. “So they need to have a really energy-dense fuel.”

Big, heavy batteries are not so great. So the focus is on finding cleaner sources of liquid fuel.

“[The] industry honestly has been working on this for a long time, and supply is minuscule today,” Rutherford said.

Most of the alternatives available are biofuels, said Laura Hutchinson at sustainable energy nonprofit RMI. Those might use tallow, or animal fat, and used cooking oil, she said. Like those converted diesel cars powered by old french fry grease or corn ethanol mixed in gasoline.

“Those have a lot of challenges with sustainability, more broadly defined,” Hutchinson said.

Growing crops for biofuel can also be harmful to the environment, and most sources have been too expensive to produce at scale — seven to 10 times more than fossil jet fuel.

That’s why Alaska Airlines is looking to promote next-generation fuels created from waste products that are plentiful, said Diana Birkitt Rakow, senior vice president of public affairs and sustainability.

“There’s no one solution for this problem,” she said. “And so, it’s sort of adding yet another kind of arrow to that quiver of another pathway to produce fuel.”

But she said the airline industry operates on tight margins, so support from other partners, like Microsoft and policymakers, will be key.

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