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Researchers Report Renewable Jet Fuel Breakthrough

National Renewable Energy Laboratory researchers report success in using lignin as a path toward a drop-in 100% sustainable aviation fuel. Lignin makes up the rigid parts of the cell walls of plants. Other parts of plants are used for biofuels, but lignin has been largely overlooked because of the difficulties in breaking it down chemically and converting it into useful products.

Lignin is an underutilized natural resource that could be just what the airline industry needs to curb carbon emissions.

Researchers at three institutions – the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Washington State University – report success in using lignin as a path toward a drop-in 100% sustainable aviation fuel.

The newly published research demonstrated a process the researchers developed to remove the oxygen from lignin, such that the resulting hydrocarbons could be used as a bio jet fuel blendstock. The research paper, “Continuous Hydrodeoxygenation of Lignin to Jet-Range Aromatic Hydrocarbons,” has been published in the journal Joule.

Gregg Beckham, Ana Morais, and Earl Christensen are the researchers involved from NREL.

Three containers with a powdery substance in one and liquid in the others. Containers are of poplar biomass (left), the extracted lignin oil, and the resulting sustainable aviation fuel. Image Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Click the press release link for the largest view.

The paper points to the need to use sustainable sources for jet fuel as the airline industry has pledged to dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Airlines consumed 106 billion gallons of jet fuel globally in 2019, and that number is expected to more than double by 2050. Accomplishing the industry’s goal of achieving net carbon neutrality during that same period will require a massive deployment of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) with high blend limits with conventional fuel.

Jet fuel is a blended mixture of different hydrocarbon molecules, including aromatics and cycloalkanes. Current commercialized technologies do not produce those components to qualify for a 100% SAF. Instead, SAF blendstocks are combined with conventional hydrocarbon fuels. As the largest source of renewable aromatics in nature, lignin could hold the answer to achieving a complete bio-based jet fuel. This newly published work illustrates the ability of a lignin pathway to complement existing and other developing pathways. Specifically, the lignin pathway described in this new work allows the SAF to have fuel system compatibility at higher blend ratios.

Because of its processing recalcitrance, lignin is typically burned for heat and power or used only in low-value applications. Previous research has yielded lignin oils with high oxygen contents ranging from 27% to 34%, but to be used as a jet fuel that amount must be reduced to less than half-percent.

Other processes have been tried to reduce the oxygen content, but the catalysts involved require expensive noble metals and proved to be low yielding. Researchers at the trio of institutions demonstrated an efficient method that used earth-abundant molybdenum carbide as the catalyst in a continuous process, achieving an oxygen content of about 1%.

***

It would be quite something if lignin could be used in a high value product. As noted, the material is really hard to breakdown. Yet once broken down, is it a small goldmine, so to speak. There is also a lot of it to be made available. That makes this research so important.

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Lets hope the research can find some scale up interest. There is a definitive need to find a product field lignin is competitive in.

By Brian Westenhaus via New Energy and Fuel

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