The Rubbishing of Aviation, and the search for carbon-negative rubbish

July 29, 2021 |

Where I come from, rubbish is used as a verb, meaning to denigrate, and there’s been an awful lot of rubbishing going around with respect to aviation. Once, we Flew the Friendly Skies, but these days, the runways are getting surly, and when the UK government issued a report finding, as the BBC reports here, “new technology will allow domestic flights to be almost emissions-free by 2040, and international aviation to be near zero-carbon by mid-century,” the Beeb noted that “The policy has been ridiculed by environmentalists, who say the government is putting far too much faith in innovation. They say demand for flying and driving must be curbed if the UK is to meet its ambitious climate targets.”

I’ll sum it up this way: the UK government says we’ll all be flying on rubbish by 2040, and environmentalists cry “Rubbish!” 

Who’s right? Faith in progress through technology or faith in demand reduction by any means. Depends upon your appetite for personal liberty, I suppose. But more importantly it depends on how much rubbish there is around to convert, and how much rubbish there is in all the claims made by technologists about the prospects for commercial production at massive-scale. 

We need an awful lot of the first kind, and a sharp reduction in the second, kind, if we’re not to have a Close Encounter of the Third Kind with climate change writ large, or so we’re told by our betters.

There’s good news on the technology front. 

Farewell, rubbish in Reno

Fulcrum BioEnergy, Inc., a pioneer in the production of low-carbon fuels, announced that it has completed construction on the world’s first commercial-scale plant converting household garbage into low-cost, zero-carbon transportation fuels. Through Fulcrum’s revolutionary process, the Sierra BioFuels Plant located east of Reno, Nevada, will convert 175,000 tons of prepared municipal solid waste (MSW) into approximately 11 million gallons of zero-carbon syncrude annually, which will then be upgraded to transportation fuels such as sustainable aviation fuel, renewable diesel and renewable gasoline – Fulcrum Fuel. With construction complete, start-up and commissioning on the plant has commenced and fuel production is expected to begin during the fourth quarter of 2021. 

Fulcrum’s proprietary waste-to- transportation fuels process diverts large volumes of MSW from local landfills and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100 percent on a lifecycle basis. In addition to providing solutions for the ever- increasing challenges of waste disposal, Fulcrum Fuel is an environmentally friendly, cost effective, and certified alternative to petroleum-based fuel for industries such as aviation which are seeking solutions to climate change. Fulcrum has patented the processes and systems for converting the organic materials found in municipal solid waste into Fischer-Tropsch liquids and upgraded transportation fuel products. 

Beyond Sierra, Fulcrum’s large commercial growth program has identified eight future plant locations in the U.S. with the capacity to produce more than 400 million gallons of drop-in transportation fuel each year. Fulcrum has secured feedstock for Sierra and for future plants from its waste services partners and has entered into fuel offtake agreements with its strategic partners including BP, United Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, World Fuel Services and Marubeni. 

The Company’s next project – the Centerpoint BioFuels Plant – will be located in Gary, Indiana with MSW sourced from the greater Chicago and northern Indiana areas. Fulcrum has secured the biorefinery site, completed initial engineering and has submitted permits for Centerpoint, which will have three times the capacity of Sierra, producing approximately 35 million gallons of drop-in transportation fuel annually. The Company is also finalizing site selection for its third project, to be located in the Houston/Gulf Coast area, with planned capacity to also produce 35 million gallons of certified, zero-carbon, drop-in fuel annually. In addition, Fulcrum is working with its partners to develop waste-to-fuels projects in select international markets. 

Farewell, rubbish in Mississippi

More new arrives from Mississippi. In this case, wood waste. That’s paper rubbish to you. This past week, Velocys announced the execution of a strategic framework agreement with Koch Project Solutions (KPS), a subsidiary of Koch Engineered Solutions, for Velocys’ Bayou Fuels biorefinery project in Natchez, Mississippi, U.S.

Subject to completion of due diligence and integrated licensor work, KPS may be awarded a turnkey engineering, procurement and construction contract to deliver the project facility, including an integrated performance guarantee wrap backed by a parent company guarantee.

This project is expected to produce approximately 33 million US gallons/year (125 million liters/year) of sustainable aviation fuel with negative Carbon Intensity and naphtha made from woody biomass from the pine plantations in the counties surrounding Natchez in Mississippi. Upon successful execution of an EPC contract, KPS will be responsible for constructing and commissioning this first-of-its-kind facility, which includes the use of renewable power with carbon capture and storage of the plant’s by-product carbon dioxide. 

The conversion process from gasification of wood chips to FT synthesis generates a significant volume of biogenic carbon dioxide as a by-product. This carbon dioxide is clean, of high concentration and dry and can be used for commercial purposes, replacing fossil based carbon dioxide, or permanently sequestered. The fuels produced from the facility will meet all requirements and regulations to be sold in the US and generate Federal and State credits under RFS-2 and the relevant State Low Carbon Fuel Standards.

Farewell, potentially, rubbish in the Northwest

Up in Seattle, Boeing, SkyNRG and SkyNRG Americas inked a partnership focused on scaling the availability and use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) globally. Boeing will also invest in SkyNRG Americas’ SAF production project, for which Alaska Airlines is a previously announced partner. Boeing, SkyNRG and SkyNRG Americas will work together to accelerate SAF development globally, focusing on scaling production capacity, building awareness and engaging stakeholders throughout the value chain, including airlines, governments and environmental organizations.

We say “prospectively” not because there’s doubt on the ability of the team led by SkyNRG Americas CEO John Plaza to define and complete the project, rather, we’re not exactly sure which technology they will ultimately employ. There’s been quite some interest shown in SkyNRG circles for LanzaJet technology. Which makes jet fuel from ethanol. Which same ethanol, if made from the LanzaTech process, makes it from waste carbon monoxide. Or as they say around the tables where the merits of steel mill off-gases are debated. “Rubbish!”.

That is “rubbish!” the feedstock, not “rubbish!” the technology. Would that we could always employ the phrase “Proven!” to the feedstock reserves, as we can to the technology itself, which is proven, but sometimes the feasibility studies that can find no rubbish in the technology can’t find enough rubbish near the plant, converting the techno-economics into “rubbish!” faster than the process can convert rubbish into fuel.

The Boeing-SkyNRG partnership builds on Boeing’s long-term industry leadership and investment in SAF. The company began SAF test flights in 2008 and helped gain approval for commercial use in 2011. The Boeing ecoDemonstrator uses SAF for all flight test programs and completed the world’s first commercial airplane flight using 100% SAF in 2018. Earlier this year, Boeing committed that its commercial airplanes will be capable and certified to fly on 100% SAF by 2030.

The Bottom Line

And that’s no rubbish, and certainly makes it possible that the world will fly on carbon-negative fuels before 2040. Making the UK report not rubbish, but in fact, far-sighted and thoughtful, despite all the claims of “Rubbish!” from the critics who prefer to solve the world’s problems with social engineering instead of process engineering. Hopeful, I might add, they are, these critics, that there are no unintended knock-on consequences from social engineering and managing the world’s climate crisis through a series of bans and prohibitions.

What it all comes down to, in the end, is this question: is there enough rubbish? For now, all we are sure is that there is quite enough rubbishing. 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Category: Top Stories

Thank you for visting the Digest.