Biobased jet fuel is poised for takeoff in the commercial market as the ASTM International Committee on Petroleum Products and Lubricants has approved the addition of an annex to the biojet fuel specification D7566. Titled “Standard Specification for Aviation Turbine Fuel Containing Synthesized Hydrocarbons,” the annex will set fuel properties for hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids fuel derived from biomass feedstocks such as camelina, jatropha or algae, as well as production control criteria of the fuel for aviation use.
The vote concludes the technical review process, and final issuance of the revised specification was released in early July.Airlines can use a 50 percent blend of biofuel in their planes immediately.
ASTM’s decision to amend the jet fuel specification was welcomed by various stakeholders within the aviation fuel supply chain, most notably the Air Transport Association of America Inc., the industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines. According to John Heimlich, vice president and chief economist for the ATA, it will take time for significant volumes of biojet fuel to enter the market due to competitive hurdles, petroleum price volatility and scarcity of financing for fuel production facilities and other factors, “but there are reasons to expect up to 1 billion gallons of biofuel to be in annual production by 2020,” he says in an email correspondence. Heimlich says that the worldwide airline industry is projected to spend approximately $176 billion on conventional jet fuel this year.
“A plethora of U.S. and non-U.S. airlines have worked tirelessly together and with the military to facilitate the development and deployment of alternative aviation fuels,” Heimlich says. “That work has clearly paid off.”
While the latest ASTM certification will undoubtedly help end-users such as airlines to use a cleaner-burning fuel in their engines, it will also play an important role in opening the market for prominent biobased jet fuel producers and technology players. Honeywell’s UOP, for example, has played an active role in supplying its fuel for testing by various original equipment manufacturers airlines, airports and other participating stakeholders for several years within the aviation fuel supply chain.
According to Jim Rekoske, UOP’s vice president for renewable energy and chemicals, UOP intends to continue its commitment of providing biobased jet fuel and of being proactive in addressing the demand by opening discussions with domestic and international parties interested in potentially licensing its technology to build, own and operate biobased jet fuel production facilities in North America, Asia, Europe and India.
“The demand signal is now coming from the backend of [the aviation fuel supply chain] and it’s now coming in force with the ASTM approval,” Rekoske tells Biodiesel Magazine. “What it’s going to take is some time for that demand signal to work its way forward into the front part of the chain so that the raw materials can be readily accessible, the conversion facilities can be built and operational and so on. That’s really the lag we’re working with.”
With the ASTM approval, some in the biorefining industry may wonder if it will foster increased competition among existing participants, like UOP, within the aviation fuel supply chain. Rekoske believes it will, and he doesn’t think that is a bad thing and expects direct competitors to create new business opportunities and collectively establish a competitive market.
“We welcome the competition to be able to go after these markets together,” Rekoske says. “They’re big markets…there’s 55 billion gallons of jet fuel consumed annually in the U.S. alone. That’s a lot of jet fuel and it’s going to take a lot of facilities, so I think there’s room for a lot of different technologies to thrive and succeed.”
Not only should it be a boon for companies like UOP, but it should also embolden other companies to move forward more quickly with their own certification efforts. Companies, including Amyris Inc., Gevo Inc., Terrabon Inc., Virent Energy Systems and Solazyme Inc., target a biobased jet fuel product from different processes and molecules not covered under the latest ASTM approval. This is a promising sign as a collaborative effort is underway among airlines, engine and airframe manufacturers, airports, the Federal Aviation Administration, the military and others to certify and approve pathways for processes that convert sugars and lignocellulosic feedstocks to jet fuel.
According to Aaron Imrie, Virent’s commercial manager of fuels and lubricants, who also represents the company within the ASTM committee, the company is in the initial stages of getting its biobased jet fuel approved by independent third-party valuators. Wright Patterson Air Force Base is currently evaluating the physical properties of Virent's product from its pilot facility in Madison, Wis.
“Once everyone is comfortable sharing the information, we’ll start to share that data as part of the ASTM body,” Imrie says. “That’s the next step.”
Gary Luce, CEO of Houston-based Terrabon says his company has been trying to get its alcohol-based jet fuel certified through ASTM for about a year and a half now. Terrabon’s cellulosic gasoline product, made at its demonstration facility in Bryan, Texas, is a viable drop-in renewable gasoline blendstock that looks similar to cracked gasoline coming off the fluid catalytic cracking conversion process, Luce says, a pathway commonly used by today’s petroleum refiners.
“So far, we’ve gone through 100-liter tests and, by next year, we’ll make about 6,000 liters that will be going into these further tests,” Luce says. Terrabon is currently working with Logos Technologies to help it get its fuel qualified with the military and other potential end-users.
Challenges Still Looming
The ASTM’s decision presumably sets a meaningful precedent on the world stage for incorporating biobased jet fuel into the fossil aviation fuel supply. In 2009, ASTM approved the now widely used Fischer-Tropsch process under the alternative jet fuel specification, and no other company knows this better than California-based Rentech Inc.
Rentech operates a demonstration-scale facility in Commerce City, Colo., deploying its synthetic fuels technology that has produced more than 40,000 gallons of biobased jet fuels. Last year, a commercial flight flew on a blend of RenJet (the company’s trademarked, renewable, certified jet fuel) and conventional Jet-A with no difference in performance when compared to conventional jet fuel, according to President and CEO Hunt Ramsbottom. Rentech employs a proprietary process based on Fisher-Tropsch chemistry that, together with gasification and upgrading, is capable of converting syngas from biomass and fossil sources into hydrocarbons that are subsequently upgraded with technology from a UOP alliance.
Rentech is heavily involved in deploying its biojet fuel process technology. Earlier this year, the company received approval by the Province of Ontario, Canada, to obtain a long-term supply of up to 1.3 million tons per year of Crown timber for the company’s planned biobased jet fuel project, Project Olympiad, located in the Township of White River, Ontario. Last year, Rentech forged partnership Solena Group Inc. to integrate its Fischer-Tropsch synthetic fuel technology platform in Solena’s proposed BioJetFuel project—called GreenSky—in the United Kingdom. Ramsbottom added that Rentech plans to produce biojet fuel from sugarcane bagasse and wood sources out of its demonstration unit located in Commerce City.
Ramsbottom contests that ASTM certification may somewhat weaken the barrier for entry by biobased jet fuels such as HEFA and other alcohol-based jet fuels. Long-term sustainable and economic production of the product remains in question, particularly when it comes to feedstock sourcing and price competition against crude oil.
“It all comes down to economics,” Ramsbottom says. “I think the airlines to date haven’t wanted to recognize the benefits of green fuels in terms of the pricing and I think they’re constrained through their economics on what they can pay for fuels. I also think there has to be, at some point, a meeting of the minds as to energy security and green attributes, and if it has to compete head on with the price of crude oil, it’s going to be a long day until there’s a supply of this product.” He adds, “For us being approved two years ago, we’re at that stage now where the entire supply chain needs to come together and move forward with increasing supply in order to satisfy the demand.”
Author: Bryan Sims
Associate Editor, Biorefining Magazine