Air travel is back, bigger than ever.

And that’s a problem for the environment.

Air travel is a growing source of the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. That’s why the aviation industry has committed to reach “net zero” greenhouse gases by 2050.

Washington State University researchers across multiple programs, colleges, and campuses are helping airlines get there.

Sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, is currently the only alternative suitable for the long-haul routes that produce the most carbon. Made from plants, waste streams, or captured carbon, it’s blended with conventional fuel and is already used by more than 50 airlines.

But 2022 production in the United States was about 15.8 million gallons; that will need to increase to 3 billion gallons by 2030 and 35 billion gallons by 2050 to meet the industry’s climate goals. Hurdles include identifying new source materials, ensuring biofuel crops don’t replace food production or threaten water supplies or forests, refining the materials, and transporting fuel to airports without canceling out its carbon reduction.

WSU researchers are working on all these issues, as well as identifying supply-chain and infrastructure costs and logistics, and testing potential fuels to ensure they meet the extraordinarily tight characteristics for aviation.

“This full vertical integration of capabilities at WSU is unique,” says Joshua Heyne, associate professor and director of the Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory at WSU Tri-Cities. “We have people who are leading in every one of these bottlenecks for SAF.”

The university and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology co-lead ASCENT, a consortium of research universities, government agencies, national laboratories, and private entities convened by the Federal Aviation Administration nearly a decade ago. WSU Regents Professor and Director of ASCENT Michael Wolcott helped author the nation’s SAF roadmap.

Most recently, WSU is partnering with Snohomish County on a research and development center for sustainable aviation fuels at Paine Field in Everett to build a first-of-its-kind repository for SAF samples to be distributed globally. The project received $6.5 million in seed funding from the Washington legislature.

WSU researchers are already looking beyond SAF to other potential power sources, such as liquid hydrogen and e-fuels.

“WSU is in a really amazing position right now,” says Jacob Leachman, associate professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering and hydrogen fuel researcher. “We’re not only leading the FAA’s center for sustainable aviation fuels, we’re leading the emerging aviation fuels for the next several decades.”


Watch more about sustainable aviation fuel research at WSU…