Quantalux Blog

News, events, observations, industrial and otherwise, from a Quantalux point-of-view.

Can a Farmer make Jet Fuel?

In 2011, the ASTM (the leading engineering standards organization in the US) approved the blending of JP8 with biofuels produced from cellulosic feedstocks for aviation fuels.  This seemingly bland bit of technical information is actually an important moment for the use of biofuels in the aviation industry. Commercial jets use approximately 17B (billion!) gallons of JP8 jet fuel in the US alone, meaning that there is an enormous potential market for aviation biofuels. Specifically, ASTM approved a mixture of 50% JP8 and 50% Bio-SPK, which is derived from biocrops such as camelina, jatropha, or canola.  In approving this mixture, the ASTM has opened a new market to the nascent aviation biofuel industry.

Bio-SPK stands for “bio-derived synthetic paraffinic kerosenes” and is a special type of biofuel that is a drop-in replacement for the JP8 used in jet engines. Bio-SPK fuels generate far fewer Greenhouse Gases (GHG) than traditional petroleum-based jet fuels. Furthermore, the biofuel crops that  produce the raw oils for Bio-SPK are well suited for planting on marginal areas that are not suitable for food-based production. (This latter concern is valid: the last thing we need is for biocrops like canola to compete with food sources  — the result would be akin to the ethanol disaster, which no one wants to repeat.)

Researchers in Michigan, Utah and other states have been planting test plots of biocrops on non-food land such as airports and freeway medians. This hands-on research is important since planting canola on a freeway median is far more difficult than planting canola in an open field. Existing grasses, access and the slope of the ground all make freeway plantings a challenge.  Freeways do have good potential, however. It is estimated that up to 500 gallons of Bio-SPK per mile can be delivered from freeway medians (these were initial tests run in Utah.)

A key part of this solution is to involve farmers who already have experience with planing crops in difficult locations. Producing biocrops can be an additional way for farmers to capture revenue from the marginal sites on their property, or from the freeways/road medians that are nearby their farm.  One can imagine a system where the local farmer bids to the Dept of Transportation for the right to grow a biocrop on the freeway median near their farm. The farmer provides equipment and know-how, and gets the revenue from the biocrop. The State receives a lease fee, and the local economy is enhanced with more revenue.

While biocrop production on marginal land may not produce the billions of gallons of biofuel needed for the jets overhead, it can one of many diverse sources of non-fossil-fuel energy that our future economy needs. Initial systems will not be cost-competitive with JP8, but as the technology improves, Bio-SPK production offers an excellent way for non-traditional biocrop producers to thrive.

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