EERC researchers produce renewable jet fuel

By Kris Bevill | September 16, 2008
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Web exclusive posted Oct. 1, 2008 at 11:49 a.m. CST

The quest to produce renewable jet fuel is closer to getting off the ground at the University of North Dakota's Energy and Environmental Research Center. The EERC announced Sept. 29 it has produced samples of completely renewable jet fuel that meet all the specifications required for military aviation use.

Research and production of the fuel was made possible by a $4.7 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Tom Erickson, associate director for research at the EERC, said researchers have been working on the project for approximately six months and it has taken them no more than one year to get to this stage.

"The major breakthrough is that we're using 100 percent renewable feedstock," Erickson said. Up to this point, any advances in jet fuel have been made by blending the alternative fuel with petroleum-based jet fuels. The EERC's fuel is capable of being the sole fuel in aviation fuel tanks. Erickson said traditional methods for biodiesel production from crop oils have been incapable of producing a fuel that has the cold-weather performance necessary for aviation equipment. Therefore, EERC researchers needed to develop a completely unique process in order to meet the freeze point, density and energy content parameters necessary for jet fuel, and do it in an efficient manner.

While Erickson couldn't specifically name what feedstocks were used for sample production, he said they have proven it's possible to produce the fuel from any crop oil. "We're very flexible in terms of the crop oil feedstock," Erickson said. For testing purposes, the EERC produced fuel samples from three different oil feedstocks. All three were tested at a U.S. government facility to see how they measured up to the specific parameters for JP-8, the military's widely-used petroleum jet fuel. All three samples tested fine for every parameter, including freeze point, density, flash point and energy content.

The differences between JP-8 fuel and Jet A fuel, which is what commercial aviation equipment uses, is minimal, according to Erickson. JP-8 specifications are actually a little more stringent, so "if you can make JP-8, you can make Jet A," he said.

The EERC is currently working to produce larger samples which will be used by DARPA for on-the-ground engine testing later this year. Meanwhile, the EERC is seeking private-sector partners to move forward with the commercial applications for their renewable jet fuel. Negotiations have begun with some fuel suppliers and oil refineries. Erickson said he hopes that by the end of the year private partnerships will begin to move the technology through the demonstration phase "to the point where we can get military and/or commercial planes flying."

Erickson expects it will be one to three years before commercial-scale production is possible.
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