Alaska Airlines ups the ante in the search for sustainable, affordable jet fuels.
In Colorado, Gevo and Alaska Airlines announced a strategic alliance to purchase Gevo’s renewable jet fuel and fly the first-ever commercial flight on alcohol-to-jet fuel (ATJ).
The demonstration flight is expected to occur after Gevo receives ASTM International certification for its fuel, sometime in mid to late 2015. Gevo has been working through the rigorous ASTM process for six years, which includes extensive engine testing and data analysis by all of the major original equipment manufacturers to establish the specification for this drop in fuel. Once approved, this fuel can be seamlessly integrated into the existing distribution infrastructure and onto commercial aircraft.
“Developing a domestic, competitively priced, sustainable supply of biofuels is fundamental to the future of American aviation,” said Joe Sprague, senior vice president of external relations at Alaska Airlines. “The cost of fossil-based jet fuel is one of the largest expenses for airlines. This investment in Gevo’s ATJ will help reduce our exposure to high fuel prices, minimize our carbon footprint and demonstrate growing demand for fuel alternatives.”
“A sustainable biofuels industry would help insulate airlines from fuel price spikes, enabling them to offer economical air travel while remaining profitable, while helping meet their environmental goals, and spur economic growth within and outside of aviation,” said Gevo CEO Pat Gruber. “We greatly appreciate Alaska Airlines as a commercial partner as we move towards commercialization.”
Why alcohol-to-jet, anyways?
When most of us think of highly customized aviation alcohols, we probably think of the little bottles of Johnnie Walker. But a handful of companies such as Gevo, Butamax and LanzaTech could shake up the emerging aviation biofuels markets by developing renewable aviation fuels from ethanol and/or biobutanol.
“An alcohol molecule, looking at it one way, is really just a hydrocarbon carrying this extra OH [a hydroxyl group] on its back,” LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren told The Digest, explaining that chemically reforming alcohol into jet fuel is not a bizarre form of medieval alchemy.
In the process, you generally need two ethanol molecules to make a jet fuel molecule, so unless you are interested in trying to sell $3 jet fuel into a $2 market, you had better start with something that produces much better than $1.50 ethanol.
Isobutanol, such as made by Gevo and Butamax, is an alcohol with special applications in jet fuel because it is a four-carbon molecule to begin with. Back in 2009, Gevo opined that the first “Sasol Synthetic Jet was C12‐ centered isoparaffin mixture with similar properties” to Gevo’s jet fuel blend stock. Gevo said at the time that its jet fuel met all ASTM specifications except a slight miss on fuel density, and blended with 25% Jet A it met all specs. Gevo also indicated that it could make a jet fuel blend stock at an operating cost equivalent to $65 oil.
Gevo and aviation fuels
Gevo’s ATJ is produced at its demo biorefinery in Silsbee, TX, using isobutanol produced at its Luverne, MN, fermentation facility. Gevo is currently operating its Luverne plant in Side-by-Side operational mode, whereby isobutanol is being produced in one of the facility’s four fermenters, while the other three fermenters are dedicated to ethanol production. The isobutanol that Gevo is producing is meeting product specifications for direct drop-in applications, as well as for use as a feedstock for the Silsbee biorefinery to produce hydrocarbons such as ATJ.
In March, NASA purchased volumes Gevo’s renewable alcohol-to-jet fuel (ATJ) for aviation use at the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Gevo’s ATJ is manufactured at its demonstration biorefinery located in Silsbee, Texas, using renewable isobutanol produced at its Luverne, Minnesota, isobutanol plant. The biorefinery, where Gevo also produces bioparaxylene and bioisooctane, is operated in conjunction with South Hampton Resources.
In December 2014, the US Navy’s Naval Air Systems Command announced its first successful alcohol-to-jet supersonic flight, fueled by Gevo’s renewable isobutanol. This was the first aviation test program to comprehensively test and evaluate the performance of a 50/50 ATJ blend in supersonic (above Mach 1) afterburner operations – a critical test to successfully clear the F/A-18 for ATJ operations through its entire flight envelope. This military specification would allow for commercial supply of ATJ fuel to the Navy and Marines Corps.
In April 2014, Gevo announced tan agreement with Lufthansa to evaluate Gevo’s renewable jet fuel with the goal of approving Gevo’s alcohol-to-jet fuel for commercial aviation use. Lufthansa’s testing is being supported through work with the European Commission.
Alaska Airlines and sustainable aviation fuel
The key takeaway for Alaska is that the airline has set a goal of using sustainable aviation biofuel at one or more of its airports by 2020.
Alaska Airlines was the first U.S. airline to fly multiple commercial passenger flights using a biofuel from used cooking oil. The carrier flew 75 flights between Seattle and Washington, D.C. and Seattle and Portland in November 2011.
The fuel was supplied by SkyNRG, an aviation biofuels broker, and made by Dynamic Fuels, a producer of next-generation renewable, synthetic fuels made from used cooking oil, now a division of Renewable Energy Group nown as REG Geismar.
At the time, Alaska Air Group estimated the 20 percent certified biofuel blend it is using for the 75 flights will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 10 percent, or 134 metric tons, the equivalent of taking 26 cars off the road for a year. If the company powered all of its flights with a 20 percent biofuel blend for one year, the annual emissions savings would represent the equivalent of taking nearly 64,000 cars off the road or providing electricity to 28,000 homes.
In 2010, Alaska Airlines, Boeing, Portland International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Spokane International Airport and Washington State University announced a strategic initiative to promote aviation biofuel development in the Pacific Northwest, the first regional US assessment of its kind, dubbed the “Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest” project. The consortium examined biomass options “within a four-state area,” examining “all phases of developing a sustainable biofuel industry,” including ” an analysis of potential biomass sources that are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest.”
Since 2010, Alaska Air Group has been a partner in a strategic initiative called Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest (SAFN), a 10-month regional stakeholder effort to explore the feasibility, challenges and opportunities for creating an aviation biofuels industry in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. The study determined the region has the diverse stocks for biofuels, delivery infrastructure and political will needed to create a viable biofuels industry. There currently is no supply of aviation biofuels in the Pacific Northwest.
The Bottom Line
The Alaska / Gevo partnership is a solid step towards commercializing the fuels, which Gevo has the capability to produce at demonstration levels. It would need an equity infusion to take the Silsbee technology to the next level.
In that context, consider the March 2015 memorandum of understanding between Praj Industries and Gevo, in which Praj would undertake to license up to 250 million gallons of isobutanol capacity for sugar-based ethanol plants over the next ten years. Gevo will market the isobutanol produced by Praj’s sub-licensees — which could well include airline customers via a Silsbee-like commercial scale conversion facility.
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