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Turning pine trees into jet fuel

Turning pine trees into jet fuel

Posting in Energy

Low-cost cellulosic sugar maker Virdia and Virent Energy have made a pine tree-based jet fuel that recently passed some rather stringent testing by the U.S. Air Force Research Lab.

Low-cost cellulosic sugar maker Virdia and biochemical and biofuel company Virent Energy have successfully developed a drop-in gasoline and jet fuel made from pine trees in a $900,000 demonstration project funded by the U.S. Energy Department, the Israeli Ministry of National Infrastructure and the BIRD Foundation.

The jet fuel was sent to the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory for analysis where it passed rigorous testing, including thermal stability specification tests conducted under some conditions where conventional jet fuels would fail, Tim Edwards of the fuel branch of AFRL said in a release today.

Virent has made fuels and chemicals from sugars in cellulosic biomass before. But this project used Virdia's sugars generated from pine trees, which Virent co-founder and chief technology office Randy Cortright said leveraged its own conversion process and established a viable route to drop-in hydrocarbons from biomass.

Virdia uses acid hydrolysis to convert cellulose found in biomass into fermentable sugars and lignin, a process the company says is more effective and cheaper than extracting sugar from corn or sugarcane. Acid hydrolysis isn’t new. However, the company has improved upon the process by developing a way to recycle and reuse the acids and solvents used in manufacturing.

Virdia's end product can be used to make renewable fuels including diesel and jet fuel; biochemicals; and nutritional additives such as baker's yeast and amino acids for the animal feed industry.  A few weeks ago, Virdia unveiled its new name, CEO and financing -- all developments that signal plans to scale up commercially.

To be clear, the pine tree-based jet fuel has a long way to go before its commercially available. For one, testing will continue. As opposed to gasoline or diesel, testing jet fuel requires far more product, noted Andrew Held, Virent's senior director of feedstocks. Virdia CEO Phillippe Lavielle said the two companies will continue their collaboration and continue testing. He cautioned, however, that taking this proof of concept to market will require numerous steps.

So, why the pine trees? The feedstock meets three requirements, Held told me. It's available -- especially in the southeast where Virdia plans to located its first plant -- sustainable and cost effective. "And you need all three" to make a viable cellulosic drop-in fuel, he said.

Photo: Flickr user Robert Verzo, CC 2.0; Virdia

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Kirsten Korosec

Contributing Editor

Kirsten Korosec has written for Technology Review, Marketing News, The Hill, BNET and Bloomberg News. She holds a degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is based in Tucson, Arizona. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure