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From Wood to Jet Fuel and Valuable Chemicals

NARA researchers aim to provide a biomass-derived replacement for aviation fuel and other petroleum-derived chemicals in a way that is economically and technologically feasible.

Early in the 20th century, bio-based materials were originally used for fuel and other products that are now petroleum-based. Extracting oil from the ground, however, came to cost less and generate more profits than the bio-based products. A significant petro-chemical industry based on the development of high-value products made from petroleum grew up during those years.

One of the biggest challenges in converting biomass from trees to fuel is their natural resistance to being broken down, known as lignocellulosic recalcitrance. In recent years, however, researchers have made significant strides in the development of chemical catalysts that do a better job of breaking down bio-based material, genetic modifications that diminish some plants’ recalcitrance, and the development of bio-based molecular structures that can serve as petrochemical replacements. The researchers hope to make biofuels even more viable by developing valuable co-products.

As part of the NARA project, the researchers will be working to convert wood-based feedstocks into aviation biofuels and other valuable products.

Using pre-treated, woody biomass feedstocks, researchers at Gevo, Inc., a Colorado-based renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company, aim to use a yeast biocatalyst to produce isobutanol. The company has developed a technology to recover the chemical efficiently. The renewable isobutanol can then be converted to jet fuel using chemical processes that are used in the refining industry. Jet fuel made from Gevo’s isobutanol is the same as petrochemical jet fuel except that the carbon source is renewable.

In the past year, the company has successfully converted corn-based feedstocks to isobutanol. They successfully scaled up a demonstration-scale project and are operating a plant in St. Joseph, Missouri, which is able to produce approximately one million gallons per year. They are also retrofitting an 22-million gallon ethanol plant for the production of isobutanol. The company has signed a non-binding letter of intent to begin supplying aviation biofuel to United Airlines at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport in 2013.

“By using woody biomass feedstocks, we will be expanding the options for renewable feedstocks and fuels,” says Andrew C. Hawkins, Team Leader with Gevo Inc., who is coordinating conversion efforts.

Isobutanol provides several advantages over ethanol as an intermediate step to bio-based fuels, says Hawkins. Unlike ethanol, isobutanol doesn’t react with water and can be transported via the same pipeline system used for petroleum products. Because it reacts with water, ethanol corrodes pipelines and has to be transported by truck, rail, or barge.

Furthermore, says Hawkins, isobutanol can serve as a platform for making other valuable products, including polymers, solvents in paints, and renewable rubber.

The group aims to develop the conversion process at laboratory scale. Later, they will scale up production to a 40,000-liter demonstration scale. The isobutanol will be converted to a jet fuel blend stock and then tested.

Another effort at conversion will occur at WSU’s Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory. This group will be working to ferment pretreated woody biomass to produce volatile fatty acids. Their goal is to improve productivity of this process, optimize conversion, and recover more volatile fatty acids than has been possible in the past. Using thermochemical catalysts, the researchers hope to also improve the process of converting the fatty acids into hydrocarbons and jet fuels.

Additional Chemical Products: The researchers also will evaluate the use of biomass-based products for the production of other high-value chemical products.