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Jet Fuel from Pine Trees

Words by Jonathan Mariano
Energy & Environment

With the price of fuel rising, many folks are looking for alternatives.  The challenge facing many alternatives, especially when it comes to fueling multi-million aircraft, is that it has to fit into the existing infrastructure.

Two companies may have found a solution, creating drop-in jet fuel from biomass.  Not only have the companies created the jet fuel, but the fuel has also passed rigorous military testing.

The two companies in this jet fuel collaboration are Virent and Virdia.  Each company specializes at a process along the value chain of creating the jet fuel from biomass.  So how does this process of going from biomass to jet fuel work?
Virdia specializes in the biomass transformation department.  It transforms materials that let other companies make fuel and chemicals.

For the collaboration, Virdia takes cellulosic feedstocks and transforms it into high-quality sugars.  This process is a sequence of proprietary extraction and separation operations of the original feedstock.  In the case of the collaboration, the original bio source is from pine trees.

Once the feedstock has been transformed into sugar, Virent takes over along the value chain.  Virent focuses on developing the end product, the jet fuel.

Virent uses its process to make the sugars into jet fuel.  Technically speaking, this process changes biomass from water-soluble oxygenated hydrocarbons into non-oxygenated hydrocarbons.

The Virent process has been used in the past to generate other fuels and chemicals.  However, this specific collaboration is what makes creating jet fuel possible.  “The high-quality sugars generated from pine trees using Virdia’s process leveraged Virent’s conversion process, establishing a viable route to drop-in hydrocarbons from biomass,” says Virent Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Randy Cortright.

The ability to just drop-in this jet fuel makes it appealing and apposite to the current technology and infrastructure.  There is no need to modify engines.  The biomass derived jet fuel apparently just works.

Furthermore, the fuel not only works, but has passed military tests and even surpassed conventional jet fuels in some respects.  “This fuel passed the most stringent specification tests we could throw at it (such as thermal stability) under some conditions where conventional jet fuels would fail. This fuel is definitely worth further evaluation,” says Tim Edwards of the Fuels Branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

All in all, this is an exciting prospect for creating jet fuel from renewable resources.  Will pine trees be a main contender as a biomass source for jet fuel?  Or perhaps the main source?  Will we be seeing more renewable jet fuel sources in the future?

Image Source: cogdogblog via Flickr