Plant-based jet fuels could soon be an alternative to petroleum
08/05/2019 // Edsel Cook // Views

A new study evaluated the potential of plant-derived biofuels to compete with petroleum-based products as a sustainable source of fuel for the aviation industry. It reported that bio-jet fuel might become a viable alternative to fossil fuels – but only if researchers maintain their current rate of success.

The global aviation industry consumes millions of barrels of petroleum-based fuels per day. Its unique need for cheap, efficient, and reliable fuel prevents it from switching to renewable energy sources.

But researchers from the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) of the Department of Energy (DOE) said that biofuels will eventually attain the same level of efficiency as traditional petroleum counterparts.

“The team at JBEI has been working on biological routes to advanced bio-jet fuel blends that are not only derived from plant-based sugars but also have attractive properties that could actually provide an advantage over conventional jet fuels,” explained JBEI researcher Corinne Scown, the primary author of the study. (Related: Scientists have found a “whey” to add a boil-fuel element to jet plane fuel.)

Bio-jet fuel may one day become as cheap as petroleum-based products

In the biofuel production process, bacteria convert the carbohydrates in plant materials into molecules. In turn, these energy-dense compounds are turned into biofuel.

JBEI researchers worked on improving each stage of the production process for bio-jet fuel. One team developed non-food biomass that contained lots of energy-rich carbohydrates and low levels of lignin.


Other groups sought better ways to extract the carbs and turn them into sugar for the bacteria to break down into fuel. And still more researchers investigated the genetic and environmental influences that might increase the efficiency of the microbes and get the most yield from the bio-conversion process.

Upon completing the optimization process, the JBEI researchers will turn the biofuel technology over to commercial partners. The fuel companies will adjust and blend the green products into existing jet fuels. The companies are also responsible for scaling up the production process to industrial levels.

Scown and her team analyzed the possibility of the JBEI project achieving its goal of creating an alternative jet fuel that airlines might desire.

“Thankfully, the answer is they can be viable,” she reported. ”And we've identified improvements that need to happen all along the conversion process to make that happen.”

To maximize biofuel production, researchers must turn lignin waste material into something profitable

In recent years, JBEI research groups have improved the technologies that break down biomass and produce biofuels. Their effort has steadily brought down the theoretical price of a gallon of bio-jet fuel.

Originally costing $300,000 per gallon, the plant-based jet fuel currently goes for as low as $16 per gallon. It still has a long way to go – a gallon of petroleum-based jet fuel costs $2.50.

Scown and her teammates looked for ways that bio-jet fuel might bring its costs down even further. They ran computer simulations of five production approaches that created four unique biofuel molecules.

They found that all five approaches led to bio-jet fuel products that matched the $2.50 price tag of petroleum-based fuels. However, biofuel manufacturers also needed to make a profit off lignin, which was too tough for the bacteria to convert into fuel.

JBEI researchers were working on converting lignin into a useful and valuable product. Their European counterparts found a way to convert benzyl alcohol in lignin into benzaldehyde, a chemical used to produce dyes and perfumes.

Scown added that all four biofuels outperformed petroleum-based jet fuels. If their aircraft gets more mileage out of the same amount of fuel, airlines might be willing to shell out a premium for every gallon of bio-jet fuel.

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