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News :: International
US Air Force looks to buy Californian garbage jet fuel
by The Register
01 Jun 2008
An American tech-licencing company says it is in negotiations with the US Air Force - and unnamed airlines - to supply jet fuel made from Californian household waste. A combination of high oil prices, a military push to find secure fuel sources, and governmental incentives are expected to make the business case viable.
Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/03/13/us_air_force_garbage_waste_biofu/
By Lewis Page
Published Thursday 13th March 2008 12:37 GMT
Flight International reports that the Solena Group intends to take biomass waste from communities in northern and central California and convert this to synthetic gas.
This will be done using the company's proprietary "plasma gasification" tech, which uses 5,000°C plasma arcs to convert household wastes - or coal, coke etc - into gas fuel. Solena claims that the energy value of the syngas output is four times that required to run the plasma furnaces, making the process self-powering.
In the proposed jet-fuel deal, the syngas would then be further processed into liquid fuel suitable for use in aircraft. Such processes typically burn a tonne of feedstock for each tonne of go-juice produced, but apparently Solena reckons it can still produce 1,800 barrels of fuel per day in California - enough to fly a jumbo jet to Australia and halfway back again.
The plasma gasification, the gas-to-liquid conversion and finally the airliner engines will release substantial amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. However, this carbon would eventually have been emitted from the decomposing biomass waste if it were simply dumped, and the airliners would have burned fossil fuel instead; so the idea is climate-change-friendly overall. It also saves on landfill, of course.
The commercial economics would seem highly uncertain, however, and Solena chief Robert Do was unwilling to name any airlines in connection with the project. He did say that the present high prices of crude oil - and consequently of ordinary fossil jet fuel - made the business case viable.
"We feel that we can survive at the current commercial market price," he told Flight.
That said, apparently the Solena numbers also rely on a US biofuels tax credit which will vanish under current plans in 2008: and production cannot begin until 2011. The current crude price can't be relied on not to drop over such a timescale either.
On the other hand, the US Air Force's desire for fuel supplies independent of crude imports isn't going away. This at least would seem to offer a firm customer for Solena's garbage-juice, and a customer potentially willing to be tied down in a longer-term deal at a price higher than airlines would be willing to pay.
The USAF wants to be getting at least 150 kilobarrels a day from non-petroleum sources by 2010, so it could easily take all of Solena's initial planned output. Realistically, the air force seems likely to be Solena's main customer - though airlines might well get involved for publicity and research purposes.
It doesn't seem plausible that one could ever run very much of the airline industry on biomass-waste fuel anyway: US aviation uses 1.6 megabarrels daily, almost 1,000 times what Solena reckons to produce from north-central Californian garbage.
Solena has plans for the future, however. Like many in the airline game, the company sees algae-based biofuel as the solution. Rather than dreaming of miracle/terrifying scum blooms able to live in saltwater and draw their carbon from atmospheric CO2, Solena proposes that relatively ordinary algae be nourished using sequestered carbon from coal powerplants.
This would be substantially easier than making algae grow without artificial carbon inputs. However, it would essentially involve shifting carbon emissions from the powerplant stack to airliner exhausts - rather than eliminating them as many would prefer.
But emissions would be reduced overall; and crude oil imports to the West, with their possible associated costs in jihadi terrorism and global military campaigns, would also be reduced.
Airlines in price negotiations for Solena's waste-derived biofuel
By Stephen Trimble
Airlines and the US Air Force are negotiating prices for a biomass-derived jet fuel scheduled to enter production in California beginning in 2011.
The fuel will be supplied by The Solana Group, a Washington, DC-based bio-energy specialist that initially plans to convert Northern and Central California’s waste into 1,800 barrels per day of liquid fuel for military and commercial aircraft.
But the company also plans to expand production by opening similar plants in other cities, with active negotiations underway in the US, Germany and Argentina.
In the long-term, Solena also foresees a transition to algae-based jet fuel leading to an even more dramatic boost in production capacity.
The US company is negotiating five-year off-take deals for the San Francisco biofuel with a number of unnamed domestic and foreign airlines, as well as the USAF, says Robert T. Do, Solena’s president and CEO. He declined to disclose the names of the airlines until the pricing deals are complete.
The fuel will be produced by converting San Francisco’s waste into a synthetic gas product, which can then be converted into liquid fuel using the Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) conversion method.
Solena has received financial backing from Germany’s Deutsche Bank. Meanwhile, Rentech, a coal-to-liquid fuel producer, has signed on to provide the F-T catalytic conversion process.
Finally, the biomass feedstock will be delivered to Solena by Norcal Waste Systems, which currently trucks waste from San Francisco and Sacramento to a landfill in Gilroy, California.
Do believes the company’s conversion method can produce biomass fuel more cheaply than petroleum-based aviation fuel at current market rates.
"We feel that we can survive at the current commercial market price," Do says.
However, he adds, part of Solena’s production estimates are based on a tax credit for US biofuel producers that is scheduled to expire at the end of 2008.
Although several airlines are interested, Solena expects the USAF to become its principle customer early on. The USAF has a mandate to convert at least half of its aviation fuel to non-petroleum-based products by 2010, driving demand for about 150,000 barrels per day.
The first plant in California is aimed at supplying only a small fraction of that amount, and even less of the 1.6 million barrels consumed by US airlines every day, Do says.
In the long term, the company wants to also develop algae as a biomass feedstock, using sequestered carbon from coal-powered utility plants to grow the plant-like oil producers.
This work is in the public domain