Virdia, Virent pioneer new super-performing, parity-cost renewable jet fuel pathway

March 27, 2012 |

Virent, Virdia debut super-performing drop-in aviation biofuels made from drop-in cellulosic pine tree sugars; “passed under conditions where conventional jet fuels would fail,” says Air Force.

In Wisconsin, Virent and Virdia (formerly HCL CleanTech), announced the successful conversion of cellulosic pine tree sugars to drop-in hydrocarbon fuels within the BIRD Energy project, a joint program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructure and the BIRD Foundation.

Tim Edwards of the Fuels Branch of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said, “This fuel passed the most stringent specification tests we could throw at it (such as thermal stability) under some conditions where conventional jet fuels would fail. This fuel is definitely worth further evaluation.”

“While Virent’s BioForming process has previously generated fuels and chemicals from sugars in cellulosic biomass,” said Virent Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Randy Cortright, “The high-quality sugars generated from pine trees using Virdia’s process leveraged Virent’s conversion process, establishing a viable route to drop-in hydrocarbons from biomass.”

The project, which commenced in January 2011, successfully demonstrated that Virdia’s deconstruction process generated high-quality sugars from cellulosic biomass, which were converted to fuel via Virent’s BioForming process.

It’s a case of double drop-in. A renewable sugar made from pine trees that drops in to the Virent process. In turn, a renewable jet fuel that drops in to aircraft, requiring no infrastructure or design change.

Scale-up

Next steps? “Commercialization,” says Virdia CEO Philippe Lavialle, flatly. In terms of produced approved jet fuel, Virent’s Cortright added, “We will need input from the OEMs, and we will go through the ASTM process, same as the oil-based fuels. It will take a couple of years.” Given the timelines for fuel certification and the scale-up steps for commercialization, Virent is indicating that 2017 to 2020 is the expected timeline for “world-class scale.”

Cost

There has been a lot of press lately regarding the Navy buying “$17 per gallon” renewable fuel, so we asked the partners about cost.

Virent CEO Lee Edwards commented, “It is really unfathomable that political leaders are waving around numbers based on R&D volumes produced for testing and certification, as if they were produced at scale in Texas City. The military orders in R&D and testing quantities all the time – robotics, components, weapons. It’s just unfair and too bad.

“The fuels will absolutely be at parity with conventional fuels, and especially as we can access a wider range of feedstocks that have lower cost and less cost volatility.

“[Navy Secretary] Mabus has taken way too much the the flak for this. Someone has to go first, and begin to work as a partner in helping the industry to scale. Otherwise, you just get a series of sub-scale plants and you never get to the costs you could achieve.”

How critical is the Renewable Fuel Standard?

Edwards commented, “there’s no question that the Renewable Fuel Standard helps, especially in attracting the significant amounts of capital needed for scale-up. The RFS ensures that there is an advantaged return for first movers, and the oil companies are now sweating it, because they know that now they have to invest in capacity or find some other way to meet their obligation.

“But if it is altered or discarded, it will be just another level of filtering, and some projects will still get through, and some will not attract the capital as quickly or not at all.”

More on Virdia

Virdia’s CASE (Cold Acid Solvent Extraction) process encompasses a sequence of proprietary extraction and separation operations. Originally developed around the Bergius process (concentrated hydrochloric acid hydrolysis of biomass), the CASE process achieves the highest yields in the industry, and produces high purity fractions of sugars and lignin. Its low temperature, low pressure hydrolysis coupled with its closed loops of acid recovery and solvent extraction establish it as one of the most economical and environmentally sustainable processes.

More on Virent

Virent’s BioForming platform utilizes a novel combination of catalytic processes to convert water-soluble oxygenated hydrocarbons derived from biomass to non-oxygenated hydrocarbons that can be used as drop-in compounds in gasoline, jet fuel and diesel fuel. Virent’s BioForming platform catalysts and reactor systems are similar to those found in today’s petroleum oil refineries and petrochemical complexes.

Two is better than one

Cortright commented, “Biomass to jet will require a number of different technologies to come together. In our case, we were able to say to Virdia, ‘This is what we need in terms of a drop-in sugar,’ and they were able to make that work.”

“You have what we think are two best of breed technologies,” said Virent CEO Lee Edwards. “Right now, its a form of virtual integration, but you may find that down the line the two partners pursue a more leveraged physical integration, where we leverage two projects off one site, and bring the processing technologies closer to the feedstock.

Virdia CEO Philippe Lavielle agrees. “Even from a purely technical consideration, thinking of mass balance, bringing the two technologies into one space can create some interesting synergies.”

Over at Cobalt

Last week, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division announced a contract award to Albemarle Corporation, a leading specialty chemicals company, to complete its first biojet fuel production  run based on bio n-butanol provided by Cobalt Technologies. Upon completion, the resulting jet fuel will be tested by the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center – Aircraft Division (NAWCAD) as a continuing process for military certification through the Department of Defense.  Once this testing is completed, larger production runs will be undertaken to continue with flight testing.

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