Making superfuels affordable, via biofuels: the JP-10 story

February 5, 2013 |

F18ACould a switch to biofuels make super-dense JP-10 military aviation fuels affordable? Could F18A Super Hornets add payload or extend range?

Currently reserved for tactical missiles because of cost, biofuels could provide a path to affordable JP-10 superfuels, if new research pans out.

There has been an awful lot of blow-back in the past year over the Navy’s decision to test a 50/50 blend of biofuels and conventional jet fuel in last year’s Green Strike Group demonstration at the RIMPAC exercises.

The uproar was that the Navy, in the absence of commercially-produced quantities of qualifying fuel, paid $15 per gallon for test quantities of a 50/50 biofuels, conventional blend.

Something critics didn’t mention is that the military has been using $25 per gallon fuel all along — for certain types of advanced, high performance fuel used in limited quantities. Bet you didn’t hear that from Senator John McCain of Arizona.

You don’t hear much about JP-10. It costs so much to make by conventional means that its use is typically restricted to air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles.

The JP-10 conundrum

What makes JP-10 attractive? Specifically, it has 11 percent higher density than conventional JP-8 (Jet A) fuel – clocking in at 142,000 BTUs per gallon compared to 125,000 for jet fuel (gasoline, by the way, has 115,000 BTUs).

What makes it unattractive? Well consider the problem that Raytheon faced, when it saw JP-10 prices soar from $13.09 per gallon to $25 per gallon between 2006 and 2010.

Now, what military officials will assure you is that it costs so much because they’re not buying much – entirely true.

Of course they said it about the advanced biofuels used for the Green Strike Group — but you would think from the amped-up Republican protests that foreign agents had been weaponizing Solazyme fermenters into weapons of mass destruction.

The whole problem of JP-10 is that, irrespective of volume, it is going to cost one heck of a lot if made from petroleum because refining the molecule in question, exo-tetrahydrodicyclopentadiene, from crude oil is like processing diamonds out of dirt.

2013 – a watershed year?

2013 may be a game-changing year — as we hear back from the first crop of PETRO projects that were funded by the Advanced Research Projects Administration – Energy, in 2011. There were 10 of them, receiving a total of $36 million in funding. Four of them complete this year (the remainder, in 2014).

Now, PETRO has its detractors, but its concepts are simple. They want to bioengineer plants to overcome limitations imposed by inefficient photosynthesis, and they want the plants in question to make oils instead of sugars. A lot of them. Usually in the class known as terpenes.

You may never have heard of terpenes, but you know them by smell. Terpenes and terpenoids are the foundational molecules in just about anything that is used in aromatherapy – or that smells great in the plant world. Eucalyptus oil, for one. It’s not well known that Vitamin A (such as carotene) is tetraterpene. Also limonene and pinene — in case you like the smell of fresh lemons or the fresh pine.

Terpenes are hydrocarbons, and they can burn fiercely – making them excellent target molecules for fuel applications.

Now, plants make them already – but they just don’t make enough of them. That’s where the bioengineering comes in — and where a number of the PETRO projects come in. More, as they say, in a minute.

Over to China Lake Weapons Center

The PETRO projects got a whole lot more interesting several months after they started, when an unrelated bit of news floated back from the Naval Air Weapons Station (NAWS) China Lake, in California. It’s a wonder complex for advanced weapons testing, (ironically) nowhere near the water.

Last summer, researchers at the Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division reported that they had synthesized a fuel that had JP-10esque properties — including fuel density ranges from 137,000 to 142,000 BTUs per gallon — from a blend of biobased terpenese, including pinene, limonene and turpentine. They used Nafion, Nafion SAC-13, and Montmorillonite K-10 as catalysts and achieved 90 percent yields from selected feedstocks.

Back to PETRO

Now, back to the PETRO project — with its stated goal of cutting the cost of producing biofuels in half, by engineering plants to make oils more robustly.

Specifically, ARPA-E wrote that “PETRO aims to redirect the processes for energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) capture in plants toward fuel production…The PETRO program seeks to genetically engineer a whole new class of crops that produce fuels which can be extracted directly from the plants themselves.”

In the class of 2013 there are four projects nearing completion – completion is scheduled for late spring or summer. Three of them — well, they are attemping to make terpenes – specifically, in camelina, tobacco and arundo donax.

Ah, so there it is. Based on the PETRO projects and what we are seeing out of China Lake, low-cost terpenes may lead to low-cost JP-10.

If so, what’s the impact?

As we mentioned, PETRO has its detractors. It’s the nature of advanced research. Things may not work out as planned. But, what if?

What do you get from an affordable fuel that has 11 percent higher energy density? Well, you get the same range from a lower load of fuel, by weight, and save money. Or, you can opt for extended range. Or, you can carry more weapons.

How much are we talking about? An extra pop-gun or too — an extra load of 20 cal ammunition?

Hardly. A fully-tanked up F-18A SUper Hornet carries 29,000 pounds of fuel. 11 percent gives you an extra 3200 pounds to play with.

Let’s put that into equivalencies, to illustrate. That’s the weight of 16 extra Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, or 5 extra Maverick air-to-surface missiles. Or two extra SLAM air-to-surface cruise missiles that pack a 230-mile range of their own.

The Arundo option

So it’s exciting. And…it’s far off. The PETRO projects are phase one proofs of concept.

“It’s a very quick turnaround to make a plant in 18 months that will yield 2 percent of its dry weight in terpene, while improving the plant’s ability to both store and release the fuel,” Joshua Yuan recently told Texas Agri-Life’s communications team. “If we can do that, then the next phase is to increase the yield to 20 percent and transfer the technology to the reed.”

Now, think of that in terms of Arundo donax, for a second. If there’s a faster growing energy reed around, we’d sure like to know about it. Beta Renewables hopes to deploy arundo as its feedstock of choice for its upcoming North Carolina cellulosic ethanol project.

Arundo routinely clocks in at 18-20 tons of biomass per acre. With a 20 percent oil yield — that’s a matter of crushing out up to 4 tons of oil per acre, per year. 4 tons?! That’s around 550 gallons, roughly 10 times what we see with soybeans grown in essentially the same dirt.
At 90 percent conversion rates, that’s be around 500 gallons per acre for JP-10esque fuel.

The bottom line

So, 10X the yield. Same dirt. Mostly the same inputs. Not hard to see how that might be utterly transformative in terms of military fuel strategy.

Which goes to show — as the Digesterati say, “never, ever begin a sentence with biofuels are, because they are changing too fast.”

We’ll know more this summer.

More on PETRO’s terpene projects

Enhanced Carbon Concentration in Camelina University of Massachusetts – Amherst

ARPA-E Award: $1,486,632.00

Project Term: 01/01/2012 to 06/30/2013


Project Innovation + Advantages: UMass is developing an enhanced, biofuels-producing variant of Camelina, a drought-resistant, cold-tolerant oilseed crop that can be grown in many places other plants cannot. The team is working to incorporate several genetic traits into Camelina that increases its natural ability to produce oils and add the production of energy-dense terpene molecules that can be easily converted into liquid fuels. UMass is also experimenting with translating a component common in algae to Camelina that should allow the plants to absorb higher levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), which aids in enhancing photosynthesis and fuel conversion. The process will first be demonstrated in tobacco before being applied in Camelina.

Fuel from Tobacco and Arundo Donax Texas Agrilife Research

ARPA-E Award: $1,877,583.45

Project Term: 02/15/2012 to 06/30/2013


Project Innovation + Advantages: Texas Agrilife Research is addressing one of the major inefficiencies in photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy. Texas Agrilife Research is targeting the most wasteful step in photosynthesis by redirecting a waste byproduct into a new pathway that will create terpenes–energy-dense fuel molecules that can be converted into jet or diesel fuel. This strategy will be first applied to tobacco to demonstrate more efficient terpene production in the leaf. If successful in tobacco, the approach will be translated into the high biomass plant Arundo donax (giant cane) for fuel production.

Jet Fuel from Camelina North Carolina State University

ARPA-E Award: $3,734,112.00

Project Term: 01/01/2012 to 06/30/2013


Project Innovation + Advantages: NC State will genetically modify the oil-crop plant Camelina sativa to produce high quantities of both modified oils and terpenes. These components are optimized for thermocatalytic conversion into energy-dense drop-in transportation fuels. The genetically engineered Camelina will capture more carbon than current varieties and have higher oil yields. The Camelina will be more tolerant to drought and heat, which makes it suitable for farming in warmer and drier climate zones in the US. The increased productivity of NC State’s-enhanced Camelina and the development of energy-effective harvesting, extraction, and conversion technology could provide an alternative non-petrochemical source of fuel.

More about all 10 PETRO projects here.

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