White House releases “Federal Alternative Jet Fuel Research and Development Strategy”

July 31, 2016 |

BD TS 080116 Jet strategy smIn Washington, a new White House report, titled “Federal Alternative Jet Fuel Research and Development Strategy,” sets out prioritized federal research and development goals and objectives to address key scientific and technical challenges that inhibit the development, production, and use of economically viable alternative jet fuels at commercial scale. The Alternative Jet Fuel Interagency Working Group, established by the White House’s National Science and Technology Council, developed this report.

The Problem

Over the past decade, significant progress has been made by commercial and military aviation to develop, evaluate, and deploy AJFs that can cost-effectively meet the challenges described above. Since 2009 ASTM International has approved five different types of AJFs. The past year has witnessed more than a half dozen

announcements in the United States of fuel purchase agreements between renewable fuel producers, airlines, and the military. But at present, AJFs that compete with petroleum fuel on price are not yet produced in volumes sufficient to meet the needs of the aviation industry.

If the Strategy R&D goals and objectives are to be accomplished in the time horizon expected, less than 5 years (near term) to more than 10 years (far term), they must be approached with important other considerations in mind.

You can find this report on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s website.

The Participants

The National Science and Technology Council, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Alternative Jet Fuel Interagency Working Group. The document was developed by the AJF-IWG, and published by OSTP.

R&D Goals and Objectives

Non-Technical Challenges

Volatility in the price of conventional fuels; inadequacies of the production infrastructure; barriers posed by legislation, regulations, and policy; complications of financing structures; uncertainty of investments; and constraints in labor forces and skills. 

Public-Private Partnerships

Cooperation between the Federal government and the private sector, including industry, nongovernmentalnorganizations, and academia, is crucial to addressing key scientific and technical challenges.

AJF Development Path

The Development Path represents the process by which an AJF is researched, developed, scaled up, tested, evaluated, and commercialized on a national level. The path begins with an originating raw material or feedstock followed by a conversion process scaled up for production and ends with the fuel product delivered to and consumed by a user. This linear structure echoes the Fuel ReadinessLevel (FRL) and the Feedstock Readiness Level (FSRL) tools developed by the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative to communicate technical development and progress from laboratory to commercial use.

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BD TS 080116 Aviation 4Feedstock Development, Production, and Logistics

Goal 1: Increase crop yields (tons/acre), water and nutrient use efficiency, as well as pest and disease resistance, and improve feedstock conversion characteristics

Goal 2: Develop sustainable feedstock production systems that require minimal inputs, have a high tolerance for environmental stress, and minimize the risk of adverse environmental impacts (e.g., invasiveness, erosion)

Goal 3: Improve harvesting, collection, storage, densification, pretreatment, and transportation of physical biomass to the conversion facility

Goal 4: Improve collection, storage, densification, pretreatment, and transportation of municipal solid waste to the conversion facility

Planning for regional AJF systems must integrate feedstock supply system elements with AJF production and end-use by identifying the following:

• Fuel use locations (e.g., Atlanta/Hartsfield International Airport, military air stations in Hawaii);

• Region(s) likely to benefit most from producing or consuming AJFs (due to the economic, social, and environmental characteristics of AJF);

• Regionally appropriate feedstocks (e.g., southern pines, hybrid poplar, energy cane, perennial grasses, MSW, forest/mill residuals, oil crops, and waste greases);

• Extant/emerging conversion platforms that could use these types of feedstock;

• Industry/community interest in siting a biorefinery in the region; and

• Alternative uses/products potentially supported by the feedstock supply chain (i.e., potential for synergistic economics/competition).

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Fuel Conversion and Scale-Up

Goal 1: Enable discovery, development, enhancement, and scale-up of conversion processes with improved yield, efficiency, and energy requirements that lead to cost-competitive AJF

Goal 2: Develop conversion technologies that can produce jet fuel from multiple feedstocks in a distributed manner

Technologies are being developed at various scales (pilot, demonstration, and pre-commercial) to convert biomass feedstocks into jet fuel, other fuels, and chemicals. Conversion technologies that are relatively mature include (1) hydro-treatment and upgrading of waste oils or plant-based oils to jet fuel and (2) gasification of biomass or MSW into a synthesis gas followed by Fischer-Tropsch conversion of the synthesis gas into jet fuel. However, R&D is needed even in these relatively mature technologies. For example, the price of fuels from hydro-treatment of oils is dominated by the cost of the feedstock, which can account for 75 to 80% of the cost of the finished fuel.

The availability of waste-based oil feedstocks is limited and imposes an upper bound on potential production volumes. R&D could focus on new feedstocks that can be available at low costs to make the finished fuel cost competitive. The gasification/Fischer-Tropsch technologies have high capital costs and require large facilities to achieve economies of scale. R&D could enable modular, small-scale reactors that can convert bio-derived synthesis gas into jet fuel. One promising pathway being explored is producing a bio-crude from biomass or non-fossil feedstocks and co-processing the bio-crude and fossil-based crude oil in existing refineries.

The refinery would continue to produce a mix of products, including jet fuel, diesel, gasoline, and petrochemicals.

Conversion technologies in the mid-term time horizon include alcohol-to-jet (ATJ), additional biochemical/catalytic conversion of sugars to hydrocarbons, and pyrolysis. One area of active R&D is the co-production of high-value bio-based chemicals, fertilizers, and soil supplements as a means of reducing the cost of jet fuels. 

Conversion technologies in the long-term time horizon include conversion of waste carbon dioxide (CO2) into ethanol followed by ATJ conversion, processes involving algal and other microbial feedstocks, and algae or other microbes capable of producing hydrocarbons. 

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Fuel Testing and Evaluation

Goal 1: Facilitate civil and military approval of additional AJF pathways by enabling efficient evaluation for performance and safety through advancement of certification and qualification processes and collection and analysis of data

Goal 2: Improve scientific understanding of how AJF composition impacts gas turbine combustion emissions and operability

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Goal 1: Advance understanding of and improve environmental sustainability of AJF production and use

Goal 2: Develop and validate a comprehensive systems model to support viable AJF deployment

Goal 3: Promote communication as well as scientific and technical R&D best practices for the national enterprise

Adverse environmental impacts tend to be highest in the areas of feedstock production, fuel production, and end use. Establishing and validating protocols that can be used for measuring environmental impacts in a common and consistent manner throughout the supply chain is an important goal. 

The scientific bases for the measurement of each indicator of environmental sustainability must be technically sound. Key outcomes of this research would be the development of common definitions, protocols, and uncertainty methodologies for assessing and reporting each aspect of environmental sustainability.

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Non-Technical Challenges

The developing industry may benefit if additional progress is made in understanding the relationship between feedstock and fuel prices and price volatility; projecting future production and demand for conventional and AJFs; evaluating the effectiveness and political economy of policy options; identifying legislative, regulatory, public perception, and infrastructure barriers; optimizing financing structures to mitigate investment and other economic uncertainty; and managing labor force and skill constraints. 

Complementarily, scientific and technical R&D can inform policy decisions and can help reduce technical risks and potentially mitigate economic and financial risks.

Federal Coordination

To enable continued coordination of Federal AJF R&D efforts, the AJF-IWG will continue to be chartered under the auspices of the National Science and Technology Council’s Aeronautics Science and Technology Subcommittee.

International Coordination

Aviation is a global industry by nature and, as such, technology and support infrastructure (e.g., aviation fuels) must transcend national boundaries to provide a seamless transportation system. AJF initiatives have emerged in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates, among others. 

U.S. agencies also actively participate on AJF activities of the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection. Additional cooperation and coordination takes place between U.S. public/private initiatives, such as CAAFI, and efforts of the Australian Initiative for Sustainable Aviation Fuels, the Brazilian Biofuels Platform, the Aviation Initiative for Renewable Energy in Germany, Indonesia’s Aviation Biofuels and Renewable Energy Task Force, and Spain’s Bioquereseno initiative.

The Glaring Weakness

The Report generally ignores carbon markets. The entire reason to make low-carbon fuels is to reduce carbon, and the social benefit of doing that is monetized in the value chain via carbon markets. In road transport fuels, for example, the difference between making ethanol and making cellulosic ethanol can be as much as $2.00 per gallon in additional value. This totally transforms the economics and timelines of bringing fuels to markets. In a practical sense, it will totally dictate where fuels are produced, from what, and using which conversion technology.

For example, military jet fuel does not generate RINs. California Low Carbon Fuel Standard does not recognize jet fuel at all. Algae is not fully recognized as a feedstock under the Renewable Fuel Standard, and neither are some 50 other terrestrial crops. Certain productino technologies are not recognized, either. It’s completely ridiculous to treat all these hurdles as if a) they don’t exist or b) they don’t matter. When algae-based jet fuels for military purposes have to commercialize at $2.00 per gallon but corn stover-based jet fuels can commercialize at $4.60 per gallon, this has an immediate impact on the where, when and how that technologies will receive investor support.

The Bottom Line

With the above-noted caveat, it’s an excellent and comprehensive summary of goals that were already widely-understood in the marketplace and the R&D community. Of course, the next step is the hard part and that is the process of turning goals into action.

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