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Study details viable pathway to develop sustainable aviation biofuels industry in Pacific Northwest; hydroprocessing of natural oils seen as the most immediate opportunity

Biomass resources of the US, with the Northwest circled. Source: SAFN report, via NREL. Click to enlarge.

The Pacific Northwest has the diverse feedstocks, fuel-delivery infrastructure and political will needed to create a viable biofuels industry capable of reducing greenhouse gases and meeting the future fuel demands of the aviation industry, according to a newly-released study by Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN). Creating an aviation biofuels industry, however, will depend upon securing early government policy support to prioritize the aviation industry in US biofuel development, the report continues.

Noting that no single feedstock or technology pathway is likely to provide sustainable aviation fuel at the scale or speed needed to achieve industry goals, the report focuses on a portfolio of options, including different conversion technologies and sources of potentially sustainable biomass, including oilseeds, forest residues, solid waste, and algae.

While the development of alternative jet fuels is a global challenge, SAFN focuses on sustainable biomass grown in the Northwest. This regional approach provides the best opportunity to develop fuels that fit local environmental conditions and spur regional economies. Instead of trying to identify the “best” feedstock for development, the report urges a diverse approach, supporting work on several promising technologies and feedstocks...For each feedstock, SAFN identifies a proposed “flight path” to help overcome key commercial and sustainability challenges and speed fuel production.

—SAFN report

SAFN focused on two primary conversion technologies for use with the four feedstocks:

  • Hydroprocessing. Established hydroprocessing technologies to produce aviation fuels from natural oils. ASTM approval for an aviation fuel using up to a 50% biofuel blend is anticipated later this year. This provides a near-term opportunity to create Northwest supply chains for sustainable aviation fuels utilizing oils from oilseed crops such as camelina, as well as algae and biomass.

  • Lignocellulosic biomass processing. Emerging technologies that use heat, chemicals and microorganisms to process woody biomass and cellulose into fuels and chemicals. This opens the way to using forest and agricultural residue streams, as well as significant portions of municipal and industrial solid waste. One technology has received ASTM approval and others are in cue. A report chapter provides an overview of emerging technologies and ways to site demonstration facilities in the Northwest.

Hydroprocessing. Using catalysts and heat, hydroprocessing removes oxygen, adds hydrogen and rearranges carbon molecules to create a drop-in petroleum substitute that requires no engine modifications in a 50% blend. Hydroprocessing produces renewable diesel, and can produce 50-70% jet fuel with an additional cracking step. The remaining product would be mostly renewable diesel, with fractions as propane and naphtha. The example used is Honeywell/UOP’s Renewable Jet Process.

Honeywell UOP hydroprocessing technology has provided fuel for successful test flights by Air New Zealand, Continental, Japan Airlines, KLM, TAM Interjet, the US Navy, and the US Air Force (USAF A-10C, US Navy Green Hornet, USAF C17, USAF F15 III Strike Eagle and US Navy RCB-X). In support of these test flights, Honeywell UOP used a tolling facility to produce Honeywell Green Jet Fuel that was blended with commercial and military aviation jet fuel in a 50-50 blend for the flights. In 2011, ASTM approval for the use of renewable jet fuel derived from hydroprocessing is moving into the final stages. The Department of Defense is separately completing approvals for fuels produced by this technology for military jets. These developments position hydroprocessing technology as likely the most immediate opportunity to develop a Northwest sustainable aviation fuel supply chain.

—SAFN report

The report estimates the one-time capital expenditure for a 100 million gallon/year hydroprocessing facility and supporting functions including feed oil purification and hydrogen production is approximately $250 million.

Natural bio-oils have carbon chain lengths that are in the diesel range, 16-18 carbon atoms in the hydrocarbon. Converting these molecules to the jet fuel range of 10-12 carbon atoms results in a loss of yield. More light hydrocarbons like LPG and Naphtha are produced in the renewable jet than renewable diesel process. Additional process steps needed to cleave the hydrocarbons into jet range could amount to as much as 30-40 percent higher cost of production for renewable jet compared to renewable diesel. Various factors, such as site specific costs of hydrogen and utilities, as well as market prices of byproducts like renewable diesel, LPG and Naphtha also have an impact on the net cost of production of renewable jet and its differential over the renewable diesel.

This production cost differential should be considered in any policy or market premium structure to provide parity to the green fuel producer for renewable jet production with renewable diesel production. A combination of policies, incentives, subsidies and green jet fuel premiums are likely needed to address this differential.

—SAFN report

Lignocellulosic biomass processing. The two major biomass processing technologies employed are separation of biomass into chemical components, which are then separately converted to fuels and products (example: biomass to sugar to fuel) and conversion of whole biomass to fuels or chemicals through thermal and chemical routes. The report notes while these technologies have long been available, the fundamental challenge is to make the processes economical.

Studies show that gasification technologies face high upfront costs. For sugar-based conversion processes, economical pretreatment of biomass is a particular challenge being addressed by researchers seeking to produce lower-cost enzymes or more effective thermal treatments. Another key aspect of sugar-based conversion technologies uses the lignin component for energy, fuel or higher value products.

The report recommends build a demonstration project aimed at proving the feasibility of a commercial biorefinery by creating a consortium involving regional public universities, industry, DOD and state governments.

Recommendations. Top recommendations from the report are:

  • Create a strategic focus on sustainable fuels for aviation. Support for aviation biofuels should at a minimum be equal to policies supporting other transport and energy sectors. Ideally, considering aviation’s economic, cultural and security importance, sustainable aviation fuels should gain a priority.

  • Promote stable, long-term policy to attract investment. Stable, long-term government policies are needed in order for a sustainable aviation fuels industry to grow and thrive. Well-integrated, consistent policies will help mitigate critical risks for feedstock growers and producers when undertaking a new feedstock or technology. SAFN specifically recommends allowing government agencies, including the military, to enter into long-term contracts for advanced fuels. The stakeholders also urge continuing and expanding key programs under the Farm Bill and other federal programs, and ensuring that aviation fuels and promising feedstocks qualify for incentives detailed in these programs. Specific recommendations include continuing the Biorefinery Assistance Program and excise tax incentives.

  • Ensure support for aviation fuels and promising feedstocks under the Renewable Fuel Standard 2 (RFS2) Program. The RFS2 program provides critical support for advanced biofuels. By qualifying for Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), producers of low-carbon fuels can earn valuable, market-based credits. SAFN stakeholders urge support for this program and coordinated efforts to ensure that promising technologies and feedstocks used to produce jet fuels qualify for RIN credits.

  • Provide strong state and local backing for this industry sector. Even in an era of constrained budgets, there are a variety of steps that states and local governments can take to support development of supply chains for aviation fuels. These include support for key infrastructure needed for advanced biofuel refineries, targeted job training, and pilot projects.

  • Target research and development on regional efforts critical to commercializing sustainable aviation fuel projects. SAFN stakeholders support continued investment in targeted research and development that will accelerate advanced biofuels for this sector. In particular, regional research institutions should get priority for coordinated efforts to address key gaps and research needs for this sector. The region has developed strong models for collaborative research involving public universities, US Department of Energy national labs, and other institutions. Future funding should build on these models and specifically target aviation fuels as a critical priority.

  • Incorporate sustainability considerations into efforts to create an advanced biofuels industry. The report highlights the importance of sustainability in creating renewable fuels for the aviation industry. Renewable aviation fuels are being developed to address key issues with existing petroleum fuels, including greenhouse gas emissions, other environmental impacts and energy security. SAFN stakeholders agree on the need to accelerate efforts to find replacements for petroleum fuels, but also emphasize the need to analyze the full lifecycle impacts of potential biomass pathways and technologies.

    Sustainability should be a crucial consideration as policies are shaped for biofuels generally and more specifically for aviation. This will ensure that policies are crafted to achieve the desired result— reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing other impacts—and provide solid measurement and data capability to withstand scrutiny.

SAFN is the US’s first regional stakeholder effort to explore the feasibility, challenges and opportunities for creating an aviation biofuels industry, here targeted on the Pacific Northwest. Boeing, Alaska Airlines, Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Spokane International Airport and Washington State University partnered in a strategic initiative to identify the potential pathways and actions necessary to make safe, sustainable aviation biofuel commercially available to airline operators in the area.

It is critical to the future of aviation that we develop a sustainable supply of aviation biofuels. Airlines are particularly vulnerable to oil price volatility, and the aviation community must address this issue to maintain economic growth and further mitigate the environmental impacts of our industry.

—Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Jim Albaugh

Albaugh described the study as a critical, first step in identifying the regional specific actions—from biomass options, infrastructure and financing incentives—that should be taken to create a renewable fuels supply chain that meets rigorous fuel and safety standards.

Launched in 2010, the SAFN initiative brought together more than 40 regional stakeholders ranging across aviation, biofuels production, environmental advocacy, agriculture, forestry, federal and state government agencies, academic research and technical consultancies. Climate Solutions, a Northwest clean-energy economy nonprofit, facilitated the stakeholder process and took the lead in researching and drafting the report.




"identifying the regional specific actions"

Each region has its strengths, trees grow in the Pacific Northwest, wheat straw and corn stover grow in the mid west. One size does not fit all.


In 2009, the USA consumed about 1.4 million bbl/d of jet fuel. This is about 3.0 quadrillion BTU/yr. The energy of the 1.3 billion tons of biomass projected by the Billion-Ton Vision paper is roughly 20 quads/yr. Using conventional biofuel pathways (efficiency roughly 0.5), the total available biomass in the USA can provide somewhat more than the total jet fuel demand. However, aviation will be competing with ground transportation and other uses for the available feedstock.

Unless we are going to run airplanes on nuclear power, the only option for the aviation industry is to find ways to run surface vehicles on something that doesn't compete for biomass. They may use batteries, they may burn ammonia... but there's only so many corn stalks and tree stumps to make into liquid fuels, and we need to prioritize.


That calls for a comprehensive energy policy and plan, not just drilling, this should be obvious. Coal, natural gas, biomass can all be part of the solution, if we make it so.

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