LanzaTech's Jennifer Holmgren speaking at the Alternative Aviation Fuels Showcase during the Paris Air Show
Wed 29 June 2011 – There is much current debate about the impact of biofuel production on land and food resources but one company exhibiting at last week’s Paris Air Show claims to have the technology in place that avoids the problem altogether. New Zealand-based LanzaTech has developed a fermentation process that feeds off industrial flue gases to produce alcohols, such as ethanol, that can be thermochemically converted to aviation fuel. Another potential advantage of the process is that it has the potential to produce jet fuels that contain the necessary all-important aromatics and so circumvent the need for blending with conventional fossil-based kerosene. The company has just been awarded funding from the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to further research into the technology with the aim of producing military-grade JP-8 aviation jet fuel.
The Department of Defense has set ambitious targets for alternative fuel use, with the Air Force looking for 50% usage on all domestic flights, and the Navy has a similar objective across all operations by 2020. The DARPA funding will focus on technology development to reduce production costs of the alcohol fuels.
The beauty of the LanzaTech process, explains the company, is it captures the carbon monoxide (CO) that is generated in large volumes as a manufacturing by-product in industries ranging from steel production to oil refining. Rather than allowing the CO gas to be emitted into the atmosphere as CO2, it is captured and used as a resource. At the heart of the process is a proprietary microbe that uses the gas as its sole source of carbon and energy for fuel and carbon production.
LanzaTech is already producing 15,000 gallons of ethanol per year from a steel mill in New Zealand and is expecting to open a demonstration plant in Shanghai, China later this year that will produce around 100,000 gallons annually. A full commercial-size facility at the same Chinese steel mill is earmarked to be fully operational by 2013 that will up annual production to 50 million gallons of ethanol. However, reducing the costs of conversion to jet fuel is a challenge.
“In order to deliver cost competitive aviation fuels from alcohols, the price of the alcohol must be driven to a very low number,” explains LanzaTech Chief Executive Dr Jennifer Holmgren. “The reason for this is that ethanol to jet conversion requires that two gallons of alcohol be converted per gallon of jet fuel produced. Therefore the alcohol must be produced at low enough cost that the two-times factor on a per gallon basis doesn’t make the aviation fuel cost prohibitive.
“We believe that there are a number of handles that can further reduce the price of our alcohol such that the final aviation fuel will be cost competitive with petroleum-derived fuels without incentives. DARPA’s support will enable us to continue to improve the economics of this unique technology platform, leading to an economically and environmentally sound approach to alternative aviation fuels.”
LanzaTech says preliminary cost analysis shows its integrated hydrocarbon process can deliver jet fuel in the $100 per barrel range during the next three to five years. It also claims the greenhouse gas footprint of its jet fuel is less than 50% of that of petroleum-based fuel.
A further hurdle facing LanzaTech’s entry into the alternative jet is that the recent approval of alternative aviation fuels by certification body ASTM International is restricted to those fuels produced through the hydroprocessing of lipids, or oil-based feedstocks, and not from alcohol or sugar derived sources.
However, Dr Holmgren has an extensive track record in the development of alternative aviation fuels, having previously headed up Honeywell UOP’s Renewable Energy and Chemicals Unit, which has supplied blended biofuels for most of the airline demonstration flights that have taken place so far. She says LanzaTech is represented on an ASTM alcohols-to-jet task force that is working on the certification process and expects the next fuels to be certified will be those prepared from alcohols.
According to LanzaTech, the efficient conversion of alcohols to aviation fuel has already been demonstrated elsewhere. Dr Holmgren says a number of those routes produce aromatics, not just isoparaffins, which mean there is a possibility of longer term certification of fully synthetic aviation fuels that do not require blending with conventional kerosene. Aromatics are required in jet fuel for the safe operation of engine seals and naturally occur in petroleum-based jet fuel, whereas they are absent from hydroprocessed renewable jet (HRJ) biofuels, and so have been certified by ASTM only in blends up to 50%.
LanzaTech’s alcohol product is shipped to Sweden where it is converted to synthetic jet fuel by Stockholm-based Swedish BioFuels. A military version of the jet fuel, called SB-JP-8, has been selected by the Swedish Defence Materiel Administration (FMV) for a demonstration, certification and deployment programme involving the Saab Gripen fighter aircraft.
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