That’s not Banana, it’s a new path to SAF: United, Tallgrass, Green Plains form Blue Blade to make billion and billions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuel

February 1, 2023 |

News has arrived from the heartland that United Airlines will be buying up to 2.7 billion gallons of SAF, and up to 135 million gallons per year, from a new venture, Blue Blade Energy, which has been formed by Green Plains, Tallgrass and the airline. It’s new tech emerging this decade out of PNNL, going from ethanol to intermediates to SAF. 

Yes, one intermediate smells like banana, and the other is found in blue cheese. But this is not a story about banana blue cheese crescent rolls for the snack for the flight to the Coast, and the Blue in Blue Blade has likely nothing to do with cheese. it’s about big partners chasing big tech at big scale to solve a big problem, Namely diversifying SAF feedstock to get the costs down and the volumes up. We reported on the story this morning here. Let’s look in more detail today.

The Partners

When we say Tallgrass, think of Blackstone’s Infrastructure Partners, investors from that fund are the owners. When we say United, think United Airlines Ventures, and this one marks one of the largest direct investments ever made by the airline’s strategic investment unit. Launched in 2021, UAV targets startups, upcoming technologies, and sustainability concepts that will complement United’s goal of net zero emissions by 2050 without relying on traditional carbon offsets. United has aggressively pursued strategic investments in SAF producers and revolutionary technologies including carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft and air taxis. When we say Green Plains, if you’ve been missing your Digest for the last 15 years while visiting Neptune and Uranus, you might not know the name of one of the world’s largest biorefining companies, with a string of assets in ethanol, high-end feed, corn oil and more; also one of the most aggressive and innovative when it comes to embracing new tech.

The immediate steps

Nothing this week. Blue Blade is expected to proceed with the construction of a pilot facility in 2024, followed by a full-scale facility that could begin commercial operations by 2028. The offtake agreement could provide for enough SAF to fly more than 50,000 flights annually between United’s hub airports in Chicago and Denver.

Who’s doing what?

Tallgrass will manage research and development of the technology, including pilot plant development, and will manage the construction of the production facility. Green Plains will supply the low-carbon ethanol feedstock, and use its ethanol industry expertise to manage operations once the pilot facility is constructed. United Airlines will assist with SAF development, fuel certification and into-wing logistics, and is the ginormous launch customer of the venture.

The technology: It’s PNNL’s!

Blue Blade’s new SAF technology was developed by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, uses non-petroleum feedstock, is a low-carbon alternative to traditional jet fuel that offers up to 85% lower lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s been under development, the tech, for some time, by the partners, this foray into ketone intermediates. In September, we reported that Green Plains Inc., Tallgrass, and PNNL were awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to support demonstration of an innovative process developed by PNNL to convert ethanol to SAF via ketone intermediates, a critical step in proving the scalability of the technology. Green Plains and Tallgrass currently hold the option to exclusively license the PNNL SAF technology globally.

Green Plains has been hard at work with Tallgrass. We reported in December that Green Plains Inc, Tallgrass and Osaka Gas USA, a wholly owned subsidiary of Japan-based Osaka Gas, announced the commencement of a joint feasibility study to evaluate the production of up to 200,000 tons per year of synthetic methane in the U.S. Midwest. The project partners aim to produce synthetic methane from low-carbon hydrogen and biogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) captured from ethanol biorefineries owned and operated by Green Plains. The joint study, which is scheduled to be complete in mid-2023, will focus on the production of low-carbon hydrogen that incorporates the capture and permanent sequestration of at least 95% of the fossil-based CO2, coupled with the methanation of low-carbon hydrogen with biogenic CO2 from fermentation.

And, Tallgrass has been hard at work elsewhere. Last May we reported that Tallgrass entered into an agreement with ADM that would pave the way for Tallgrass to capture CO2 from ADM’s corn-processing complex in Columbus, Neb., and transport it to Tallgrass’ Eastern Wyoming Sequestration Hub for permanent underground storage. By utilizing a converted natural gas pipeline for CO2 transportation, Tallgrass minimizes the need for new pipeline infrastructure while enabling ADM, a global leader in sustainable products, to further decarbonize its global operations and strengthen Nebraska’s agriculture industry.

Beyond corn ethanol? 2G opportunities?

Yes, 2G is in there. The partners say they will jointly pursue the production of SAF from cellulosic and corn ethanol — in addition to commercializing PNNL’s production process upon successful completion of the pilot project.

Isn’t this the LanzaJet technology from PNNL?

Nope, kemosabe. Yes, PNNL developed a unique catalytic process to upgrade ethanol to alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK) which LanzaTech took from the laboratory to pilot scale. LanzaJet is now commercially deploying the technology globally. This is something else. As we reported in November 2020, scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) have developed a novel catalyst that converts ethanol into C5+ ketones that can serve as building blocks for everything from solvents to jet fuel. In a new paper, they describe this breakthrough chemistry and the mechanism behind it. What’s the secret? The catalyst developed at PNNL condenses multiple reactions into a single step. Ethanol meets the catalyst under high temperature (370°C, or 698°F) and pressure (300 pounds per square inch). It then rapidly converts to products containing more than 70 percent C5+ ketones. The catalyst even at that stage appeared robust, remaining stable over 2,000 hours of use. 

What did they make? 2-pentanone and/or 2-heptanone. The former, it occurs naturally in tobacco and blue cheese. The latter, smells like banana, and rats pee it out when stressed, by the way, and bees excrete it when on the attack. Just in case you ever smelled a banana right before a bee sting, and thought to yourself, Eureka!, a path to sustainable jet fuel. Or not.

Reaction from the stakeholders

“At Tallgrass, we are striving to innovate how we deliver the energy that powers our nation and enables our quality of life,” said Alison Nelson, Vice President, Business Development at Tallgrass. “Air travel uniquely connects people and improves lives, and the advancement of this novel SAF technology presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce emissions from aviation.  We are excited to partner with industry leaders United Airlines and Green Plains on this initiative.”

“The production and use of SAF is the most effective and scalable tool the airline industry has to reduce carbon emissions and United continues to lead the way,” said United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen. “This new joint venture includes two expert collaborators that have the experience to construct and operate large-scale infrastructure, as well as the feedstock supply necessary for success. Once operational, Blue Blade Energy has the potential to create United’s largest source of SAF providing up to 135 million gallons of fuel annually.”

“Our transformation to a true decarbonized biorefinery model has positioned Green Plains to help our customers and partners reduce the carbon intensity of their products by producing low-carbon proteins, oils, sugars and now decarbonized ethanol to be used in SAF,” said Todd Becker, President and CEO of Green Plains. “This partnership with world class organizations like United Airlines and Tallgrass, shows the value creation that is possible with our low-carbon platform. The potential impact of this project is a gamechanger for US agriculture, aligning a strong farm economy and a robust aviation transport industry focused on decarbonizing our skies.”

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