Can wood scrap become a good source for jet fuel? In a few weeks, Washington's state government and its two biggest universities plan to map out a test project on the concept.
Last Friday (April 29), Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a bill greenlighting the project, which will set up a small facility to take the development of biofuels forward a step — seeing if the leftover scraps from harvested timber can become a green source of jet fuel.
So far, no facility site has been identified, said Craig Partridge, policy and government relations director for the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Nor has a plot of harvested timberland been lined up. And there are no detailed goals for what this pilot project is supposed to achieve — except that the resulting fuel must be ready for use in jet airplaines.
Washington's natural resources and commerce departments, plus experts from the University of Washington and Washington State University, are expected to meet in the near future to discuss how to tackle the pilot project.
The allure is that jet biofuel emits a significantly lower level of greenhouse gases than petroleum-based fuels do.
The idea of refining fuel from vegetation has been around since 1896, when Henry Ford used a type of ethanol from corn to run one of his first cars. People have tinkered with vegetable oils as fuel since the early 20th Century. A Brazilian scientist received the first patent for an industrial biodiesel production process in 1977. The first commercial jet to use biofuel was a Boeing 747-440 using a fuel based on palm oil to fly from London to Amsterdam in 2008.
Canola, nuts, soybeans, and algae have been used as sources for biofuel.
Camelina — a type of mustard seed capable of squeezing out more petroleum-like oils than other feedstock crops — has become a popular source. And it is not a food crop. It can be grown in fields that are fallow between growing food crops. Plus camelina-based jet fuel creates about 20 percent of the carbon emission of petroleum-based jet fuel.
Current technology can produce biofuel ready for use in jets or ready to be blended with petroleum-based fuel.
"It's not a question of if jet planes are going to fly and use biofuel. It's happening now.…It's a question of how much of the supply chain will be in our state," Partridge told the state House Technology and Energy Committee during this year's legislative session.
"We want to make Washington the leader in bio-aviation fuel," Washington's Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark told the committee.
Amy Bann, a jet biofuel expert at Boeing, told the same committee: "Five years ago, we didn't think it could be done. Three years ago, it was 'maybe.' Now, we're ready."
She said routine commercial use of jet biofuel — in small amounts and not merely as tests — is expected to begin this year. Boeing is participating in the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiatives (CAAFI), a 5-year-old consortium of airlines, federal agencies, universities, and others, to develop biofuels for use in jet planes.
The military successfully tested camelina-based jet fuel in its planes beginning in 2009. Many Navy jets flying over Libya use a 50-50 blend of bio- and petrolem-based fuels.
But the RAND Corporation studied the military's use of biofuels and concluded that the fuel wold not be cheap enough or available in large enough quantities for at least a decade, according to a ClimateWire story that ran in The New York Times in January. The military has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the development and testing of biofuels, the RAND report was quoted as saying.
"Demonstrating technical viability is easy; consider the history of photovoltaic power and fuel cells. But demonstrating affordable and environmentally sound production … is difficult," ClimateWire quoted the report as saying.
But the Navy vigorously defended its biofuel ventures in the story.
Tom Hicks, deputy assistant secretary of energy for the Navy, said: "We have been engaged with the biofuels industry. We know what they are capable of doing, and we are confident they will be able to deliver the fuels at the quantities and at the price point that we need."
Last year, President Barack Obama announced an initiative to increase the nation's production of all biofuels — of which jet fuel is just a small fraction of — from 11.1 billion gallons in 2009 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. That initiative includes plans to expand grants, loans, and other financial aid to farmers growing crops for biofuels.
"There's a lot of ramping up due to the presidential initiatives," said Darrin Morgan, Boeing's director of sustainable fuels strategy.
Morgan believes jet biofuel is a much-needed counter to the fact that the world's supply of petroleum is not endless. As the availability of oil decreases, its price will rise, he noted. Meanwhile, as the crops needed to create biofuel increase in acreage, prices should go down.
But biofuel has a long, long way to go before it becomes a halfway significant source jet fuel.
Morgan said CAAFI's goal is for biofuel to make up 1 percent of all jet fuel by 2025. A major step will be for the agricultural world to get more comfortable with the idea of growing crops for fuel as well as growing them for food.
Farmers will go with whatever is more profitable to grow — food or feedstock for fuel. The fluctuating petroleum market, agricultural costs, food prices, and numerous other economic factors make it extremely difficult to predict whether farmers will opt for fuel feestock crops or food crops, said Rick Kment, an ethanol industry analyst for Omaha-based industry watcher DTN.
One camelina feedstock advantage is that it can use land that is too marginal for growing crops, Morgan said.
Biofuel does have a steep mathematical mountain to climb to become more than a bit player in the jet fuel picture.
It takes an acre of camelina, canola, or another vegetable-oil crop to produce 60 to 120 gallons of jet fuel, said John Gardner, vice president for advancement and external affairs at Washington State University. Washington harvested 20,000 acres of camelina in 2009, the state agriculture department says.
Just to make the math easy, assume an acre of camelina becomes 100 gallons of jet fuel. So 20,000 acres becomes 2 million gallons of jet fuel — 0.0001 percent of the more than 20 billion gallons of jet fuel produced annually in the United States.
Meanwhile, AltAir Fuels — a bio-jet fuel producer — plans to build a plant to manufacture 100 million gallons of jet biofuel a year. So Washington's annual camelina crop produces only 2 percent of the plant's possible camelina needs.
The state's two commercial jet biofuel refining ventures — AltAir and Imperium Renewables, both of Grays Harbor County — declined through a common spokesman to be interviewed for this story.
Meanwhile, Sustainable Oils Inc., a biotech marriage between Seattle-based Targeted Growth and Houston-based Green Earth Fuels, believes there are between 5 million and 10 million acres of land suitable for growing camelina, which the corporation's website equates to roughly 650 million gallons of jet biofuel on an annual basis. Sustainable Oils has contracts with the U.S. Navy and U.S Air Force to provide almost 600,000 gallons of jet biofuel.
If Sustainable Oils is correct in estimating that 650 million gallons of fuel could be produced each year from camelina, that would equate to about 3 percent of the 20 billion gallons of U.S.-produced jet fuel per year.
The Rand report concluded that 10 percent of the United States' cropland would be needed to produce 1 percent of the nation's jet fuel, the ClimateWire story said. Algae is a promising biofuel source, but more work is needed to develop it as a feedstock, the report said.
Meanwhile, AltAir signed a letter of intent in 2009 to provide up to 750 million gallons of camelina-based fuel to 14 airlines in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Germany.
Several weeks ago, Brian Sherbacow, CEO of AltAir, told the House Technology and Energy Committee that the company expects to begin building the Grays Harbor plant in 2012 and to finish it in 2013, enabling production of 100 million gallons of fuel annually. At the same hearing, John Plaza, president of Imperium Renewables, which provides biodiesel for motor vehicles, said his company — which has been refining various types of biodiesels since 2007 — expects to have jet fuel for Boeing to use this year.
However, Imperium Renewables' record also shows the ups and downs faced by the biofuel industry. Some other biodiesel companies have declared bankruptcy, and an unfriendly marketplace stopped a scheduled 2008 IPO offering by Imperium. In 2009, the economy and European tariffs on American biodiesel led to layoffs. And late that year, an operator mistakenly added too much sulfuric acid to a 10,000-gallon glycerin tank and it exploded, though it did not catch fire.
The plant was back online three months later. Now there are plans to expand, eventually to 195 million gallons, Plaza told the House committee.