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From mill to wing: How waste materials could become the next green aviation fuel

09.01.2012  |  Holmgren, J. ,  LanzaTech, Chicago, Illinois

Keywords: [aviation fuels] [low carbon alternative fuels] [industrial waste gases] [conversion] [grreen aviation fuel] [alcohol to jet fuel] [ATJ fuel]

We are in the midst of an energy revolution, with new types of liquid fuels from new sources and an increased supply of traditional fuels unleashed from existing sources thanks to new technologies.

While this is good news, it is tempered by the reality that global demand is forecast to far outpace supply. According to data from industry analysts at Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), we will face a supply gap of 35 million bpd by 2030. That’s even taking into consideration the new supply brought on by the success of hydraulic fracturing in the US, new and forecasted discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico and other areas around the world, and the increased use of electric vehicles and other high fuel efficiency cars and trucks.

The world needs more supply. Period.

And nowhere is this more important than in the aviation fuels market, where alternatives to liquid fuels, such as electricity or fuel cells, are not yet a viable option. While I am sure many in the industry would love to see jets plug in rather than fill up, it’s going to take some time.

Understanding this, the aviation industry has placed a premium on developing sustainable, low-carbon alternative fuel sources that not only address the carbon footprint issue but also review the agro-economic, socio-economic and environmental assessments of next generation fuels. Of course, given the huge volume of consumption, the industry has a strong focus on sustainability, as well as price. The cost for alternatives must be on par with, or better than, petroleum.

My company believes there’s a way to address many of these issues simultaneously by creating new, low-carbon fuels economically, sustainably and without diverting precious land or water resources. LanzaTech uses a proprietary fermentation process to convert gases (including industrial waste gases and gas derived from any biomass source) into fuels and chemicals. We are one of several companies looking to turn waste into fuel.

This approach is cost effective, as it uses material that has no value; environmentally effective, as it recycles gases that would otherwise be sent freely to the atmosphere; and socially effective, as it can create domestic jobs and foster energy security.

With industry partners such as Swedish Biofuels and Imperium Renewables, along with support from Pacific Northwest National Labs, National Renewable Energy Labs and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and funding from the Federal Aviation Administration and the US Department of Energy, LanzaTech is is working on an “alcohol to jet” (ATJ) pathway. These biofuels will exhibit similar or identical chemical and physical properties to their petroleum counterparts, enabling them to be utilized at blends up to 50% without any modifications to the storage and transportation infrastructure or aircraft engines.

At the successful completion of these projects, LanzaTech will have produced ATJ fuel that can be used for testing purposes by ASTM International as it creates a fuel specification for ATJ.

There are a number of co-benefits from all of this, including the relative abundance of industrial gases as a feedstock, the reduction in overall CO2 emissions, and the avoidance of land-use conflicts in feedstock production. Using waste materials as feedstock is helping to reshape the perception of energy sources.

We hope that success in our efforts will breed more interest and partnerships from industries that generate large sources of CO and CO2 (or other waste gases) so they will see the synergies in recycling waste materials and putting them back to work once again powering planes, trains and automobiles. HP

The author 

  Dr. Jennifer Holmgren is the chief executive officer of LanzaTech. She has over 20 years of experience in the energy sector, including a proven track record in the development and commercialization of fuel and chemical technologies. Prior to joining LanzaTech, Dr. Holmgren was vice president and general manager of the Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit at UOP LLC, a Honeywell Company. In that role, she led UOP’s renewable business from its inception through to the achievement of significant revenues from the commercialization of multiple novel biofuel technologies.  

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