Data Reveals First Civilian All-Biofuel Flight Was a Success

How are milestones created? Desperation. And emerging technologies. Airlines know they must tackle two problems at the same time just to survive: since 2006, fuel has become the single largest expense, surpassing labor for the first time; and airlines produced 676 million tons of CO2 worldwide in 2011, making them sitting targets for future cap and trade systems. Last year in 2012, with the goal of reducing greenhouse gases and escaping rising oil prices, airlines were busy conducting biofuel-powered test flights from a wide range of feedstocks, from algae to animal fats to jatropha and camelina. (Lufthansa ambitiously ran a scheduled flight for six months between Frankfurt and Hamburg - until fuel ran out.) All of the tests were successful, but at the time, every flight was powered by a blend of petroleum and biofuel - often running on only one of the plane's engines. The lack of aromatics in biomass-produced biofuels caused a problem with engine seals, and there was a lack of energy density that required blending with conventional jet kerosene. But new technologies surmounted these problems. So finally, on Oct 29th, 2012, Canada's National Research Council (NRC) removed the fossil fuel for the day's milestone test flight. Two companies - Applied Research Associates (the process technology) and Agrisoma Biosciences (the biotechnology) supplied the new biofuel, called ReadiJet.

Flying at 30,000 feet, using fuel made from genetically modified carinata oilseed, a Dassault Falcon 20 business jet took off from Ottawa, Canada, followed by a second aircraft collecting engine emissions. Engineers were on board the Falcon, monitoring the unmodified engines performance and fuel burn during the quick 90-minute round trip to Montreal and back. (press release)

Stunning results

The information (press release) collected in-flight on October 29, 2012 has been analyzed: while engine performance was identical, there was a 50-percent reduction in aerosol emissions compared to conventional fuel. There was also a significant drop in particles (up to 25 percent) and black carbon emissions (nearly 49 percent). Financially, positive results included a 1.5 % improvement in fuel consumption, which would represent a huge savings factored into Air Canada's nearly $1 billion annual fuel bill.

Carinata and biotechnology

Biotechnology played a major role. Agrisoma had genetically optimized Brassica carinata, commonly known as Ethiopian mustard, to create a drop-in for the biofuel industry.

According to Agrisoma CEO Steve Fabijanski, using this technology helps the company get very specific in adapting plant chromosomes to produce a plant with enhanced oil content (30% more than native plants) that is specifically made to grow well in semi-arid areas, making it ideal in Canada's southern prairies. Last year, more than 40 commercial growers in Canada were contracted to grow over 6,000 acres of the crop. Oil from carinata is a true industrial oil and cannot be use in food or food preparation, which helps remove the stigma of a competing food crop like corn ethanol. Listen to Patrick Crampton, VP of business and product development at Agrisoma, talk about carinata (video above).

Special process technology

Providing the processing technology, Applied Research Associates (ARA), a research and engineering company founded in Albuquerque in 1979, began its efforts in 2006 after a US military request for technologies that could convert renewable oils to jet fuel. ARA engineers received a US patent in 2010 for new process technology. Currently at pilot scale, ARA has 25-gallon-per-day and 3-barrel-per-day pilot systems

operating in Panama City, Florida. The 25-gallon-per-day system has been operating since 2008 and the 3-barrel-per-day system has been operating since 2010. At full commercial scale, 5,000 bbl/day or larger, the company says that production costs will be very similar to petroleum processing costs.With feed stocks that are competitively priced with petroleum crude, the fuels can be produced at parity with petroleum without subsidies. The ReadiJet effort combines ARA's process technology - a catalytic hydrothermolysis process to convert triglycerides (e.g., crop oils and animal fats) to non-ester biofuels or intermediates - with Chevron Lummus Global's ISOCONVERSION process technology to create drop-in biofuels that will be ready to use at 100% levels in jet and diesel engines, eliminating the need for blending with petroleum-derived fuels. The first step in the process uses water at high temperature and pressure to crack plant oils into lower molecular weight crude oil that is very similar to light sweet petroleum crude without sulfur, metals, or other impurities. The resulting crude contains oxygen in the form of organic acids that is removed in a second step that uses CLG's ISOCONVERSION technology to hydrotreat the crude into specification-quality, "drop-in" jet and diesel fuels.

"The integrated ARA/CLG Biofuel ISOCONVERSION process and Agrisoma's Carinata feedstock fulfill the commercial and military markets' needs for alternative fuels at parity with petroleum while spurring opportunities for farmers," said Chuck Red, ARA's Alternative Fuels Program Lead.

Next: scaling up the process

According to Sustainable Business, Applied Research Associates is currently working with Blue Sun Energy to design and build a demonstration project in St. Joseph, Missouri, which will produce 100 barrels a day - a big enough sample to get ASTM certification. The project is slated to begin operation by fall.

Are drop-in biofuels the answer?

Images: various, ARA Alternative Fuels