UK Competition for Renewable Flight and Freight Fuels

My July 3, 2018 blog, Municipal Solid and Forestry Waste Projects Now Delivering Transportation Fuels, described several projects in the US based on producing either synthetic jet fuels and/or diesel fuels from forestry or municipal wastes. It turns out that the US is not the only country considering such projects. The United Kingdom’s Department for Transport has recently announced several Phase One winners of their Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition:

Of the seven Phase One winners, the two largest awards, over £400,000 each, went to Lanza Tech and Velocys Technologies, who have each proposed projects to convert waste streams into synthetic aviation fuels.  An additional £20 million is available for the winners of the Phase One competitions to assist in the construction of a commercial facility.

While not to minimize the other Phase One winners, this blog focuses on the competing Lanza and Velocys projects because both are aimed at producing synthetic jet fuels but with very different approaches. The two major UK airlines are also involved in this competition with British Airlines part of the Velocys team and Virgin Atlantic with the Lanza team.

The Lanza Tech process is based on converting carbon monoxide waste gas from steel mills to ethanol using Lanza’s proprietary fermentation process. The ethanol produced is then used as feedstock for conversion to synthetic jet fuel. This process involves several steps; first the dehydration of the ethanol to ethylene, then oligomerization of the ethylene to higher C8 to C12 olefins. This is followed by hydrogenation of the olefins to saturate the double bonds and finally distillation to recover synthetic paraffinic kerosene (SPK) in the appropriate jet fuel boiling range. See the following diagram for an illustration of the steps involved.

Lanza Tech worked with the US Dept. of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to develop the technology of converting ethanol into synthetic jet fuel known as ATJ-SPK. The final product was tested and certified under ASTM’s D7566 Annex A5, the Standard Specification for Aviation Turbine Fuel Containing Synthesized Hydrocarbons.  ASTM International recently revised its D7566 Annex A5 to add ethanol as an approved feedstock for producing ATJ-SPK, which can be used by commercial airlines up to 50% blended with conventional jet fuel.

Lanza Tech is a joint venture with the Shougang Group, a Chinese iron and steel producer, in a recently commissioned plant located at the Group’s Jingtang Steel Mill in Hebei Province. This 16 million gallon per year plant produces ethanol from the steel mill’s carbon monoxide emissions using Lanza Tech’s proprietary fermentation process based on anaerobic bacteria (originally found in rabbit droppings). A portion of the ethanol product was sent to Lanza’s facilities in Georgia where, using the above described technology, it was transformed into 4,000 gallons of ATJ-SPK. This synthetic jet fuel then made up 5% of the aviation jet fuel used by a Virgin Atlantic plane which recently flew from Orlando, Florida to London’s Gatwick airport.

Lanza Tech’s gas fermentation technology has also been licensed by Aemetis for a proposed project in California to convert the agricultural waste from the harvesting of almonds and walnuts in California’s Central Valley to ethanol. (See my April 19, 2018 blog, California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) Attracts Cellulosic Ethanol for a description of this project.)

Velocys’s approach on the other hand incorporates its proprietary Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) technology to produce a range of distillate fuels from synthesis gas. The feedstock for their project is municipal solid waste which will be gasified to generate the synthesis gas (hydrogen plus carbon monoxide) required for the F-T reaction.

Advanced Plasma Power’s Gasplasma technology has been selected for the gasification step. There are other partners, in addition to Velocys and British Airways, involved in this project. SUEZ, an international water and waste management firm will manage the project’s feedstock supply; i.e. municipal solid waste after removal of any recyclables. NORMA Investments is a potential investor in the project. In addition to the £434,000 grant from the UK Dept. of Transportation, the Velocys team has received an additional £4.9 million in funding to support the pre-front-end engineering and design study as well as initiating site permitting.

Velocys’s first commercial project, ENVIA Energy LLC, is a joint venture with Waste Management, NRG Energy and Ventech Engineers. This 250 bpd plant, located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, adjacent to Waste Management’s East Oak Landfill site is based on converting methane rich landfill off gases to distillate fuels; naphtha and diesel as well as some waxes. The plant had achieved close to design production in Oct. 2017 before a leak in one of the plant’s two Velocys F-T reactors required a shutdown. Operations are suspended indefinitely while the partners review the situation.

Velocys is also pursuing a bio-refinery in Natchez, Mississippi, to produce distillate fuels from the gasification of forestry wastes.

Despite the differences in these two approaches to produce synthetic jet fuel, both projects share a common concern: purification of the synthesis gas used to feed Lanza’s fermentation reactor and Velocys’s Fischer-Tropsch reactor. If the hydrogen carbon monoxide synthesis gas contains even low concentrations of impurities, these contaminates could harm or even destroy the bacteria used in Lanza’s fermentation reactor and poison the catalyst used in Velocys’s F-T reactor.

The Phase One winners are expected to complete their initial developments by the end of 2018 and can apply for additional share of the £20 million the Dept. of Transportation has allocated to help in commercializing the projects. The Stage Two assessment will take place at the end of the year with winners announced in early 2019.

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