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Study finds that optimized integrated catalytic processing of biomass could produce renewable jet fuel with selling price as low as $2.88/gallon

Integrated processing of hardwood to renewable jet and chemicals. Click to enlarge.

A team from seven US universities and the Korea Institue of Science and Technology, led by George Huber, Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has developed an integrated catalytic process for the conversion of whole biomass into drop-in aviation fuels with maximal carbon yields.

The researchers expect that in its current state, the proposed technology could deliver jet fuel-range liquid hydrocarbons for a minimum selling price of $4.75 per gallon—assuming nth commercial plant that produces 38 million gallons liquid fuels per year with a net present value of the 20 year biorefinery set to zero. Future improvements in this technology, including replacing precious metal catalysts by base metal catalysts and improving the recyclability of water streams, could reduce this cost to $2.88 per gallon.

A paper on the experimental studies and techno-economic analysis of the process is published in the RSC journal Energy & Environmental Science.

The combined research areas include biomass pretreatment; carbohydrate hydrolysis and dehydration; and catalytic upgrading of platform chemicals. The technology centers on first producing furfural and levulinic acid from five- and six-carbon sugars present in hardwoods and subsequently upgrading these two platforms into a mixture of branched, linear, and cyclic alkanes of molecular weight ranges appropriate for use in the aviation sector.

Results of the lab studies suggest that, with efficient interstage separations and product recovery, hemicellulose sugars can be incorporated into aviation fuels at roughly 80% carbon yield, while carbon yields to aviation fuels from cellulose-based sugars are on the order of 50%.

The team further reported that the use of lignocellulose-derived feedstocks rather than commercially sourced model compounds in process integration provided important insights into the effects of impurity carryover and additionally highlights the need for stable catalytic materials for aqueous phase processing, efficient interstage separations, and intensified processing strategies.

Lignocellulosic biomass is an abundant natural resource that includes inedible portions of food crops as well as grasses, trees, and other woody biomass. According to the United States Department of Energy, the United States could sustainably produce as much as 1.6 billion tons of lignocellulose per year as an industrial feedstock. Lignocellulose can be processed to yield various transportation fuels and commodity chemicals; however, current strategies are not generally cost-competitive with petroleum.

This effort exemplifies the impact of a well-designed collaboration. As individual researchers, we sometimes focus too narrowly on problems that we can resolve using our own existing skills. Biomass refining is complex, and bio-based aviation fuels are difficult targets. Many of the real roadblocks occur at scarcely-studied research intersections. In our view, the only meaningful way to tackle these challenges is through strategic partnerships, and that is precisely what we've done in this program.

—Jesse Bond, Syracuse University, lead author


  • Jesse Q. Bond, Aniruddha A. Upadhye, Hakan Olcay, Geoffrey A. Tompsett, Jungho Jae, Rong Xing, David Martin Alonso, Dong Wang, Taiying Zhang, Rajeev Kumar, Andrew Foster, S. Murat Sen, Christos T. Maravelias, Robert Malina, Steven R. H. Barrett, Raul Lobo, Charles E. Wyman, James A. Dumesic and George W. Huber (2014) “Production of renewable jet fuel range alkanes and commodity chemicals from integrated catalytic processing of biomass,” Energy Environ. Sci. 7, 1500-1523 doi: 10.1039/C3EE43846E



Is this a replay of what was promised 10+ years ago?

What will be the cost of e-fuels by that time?


So the failed Range Fuels and the now-struggling LanzaTech doing the wood chip-to-fuel magic were just a catalyst and a water process improvement away from under $3/gal?

Well OK then. I believe it this time.


"..with a net present value of the 20 year biorefinery set to zero.."

In a global economy with many potential investments, jet fuel would probably have to go to $6 per gallon in the next 6 years to make this attractive. This is capital intensive so it requires a commitment based on predictable trends. .


The pressure is going to be on aviation to reduce CO2 emissions, as it is growing in that industry faster than just about anywhere.
So I don't think fossil fuel jetfuel would have to hit $6 gallon to make this viable.


On a pure profit best return basis, investors would rather see a 10 year payback on plant and equipment. If you mandate lower carbon, that is one thing but someone still has to pay the bills.


Another way to expressing that is it will not happen until the investment is profitable enough. There is a Low Carbon Fuel Standard and a Renewable Fuel Standard in the U.S. Neither has happened because no one wants to invest in them. They are profitable, but not as profitable as other investments.


Liquid fuels from Tar Sands cost less than half as much and royalties are extremely low under ($0.02/L) with no worries about emissions.


No worries about emissions from tar sands?
Come again?



Please substantiate those claims. Syncrude and oil sands products break even at around $50 per barrel. Now you have to transport it, refine it and get rid of all the extra petcoke.

Tar sands goo produces more CO2 than refining light sweet crude and when you take into account the extra petcoke it produces quite a bit more CO2.

They sell the petcoke to countries like India, who just throw it into a furnace, boil water to make electricity. All that carbon goes right up the smoke stack. It is all our atmosphere.

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