How Woody BiomassInnovations Are Powering Planes, Electric Vehicles By Les Shaver
Converting forest biomass into other uses is nothing new. Biomass power plants that harness the power of residuals for the forest and agriculture have been around for decades. But researchers are working on many exciting new uses for aviation fuel and electric battery manufacturing that could provide potential markets for wood residuals.
While there have been great strides in reducing emissions in automobiles and trucks via electric batteries, airlines are still a problem.
“For our auto industry, the trend is e-vehicles,” said Lokendra Pal, Ph. D., the EJ Woody Rice Associate Professor in the Department of Forest Biomaterials at NC State University. “But for the aviation industry, we will need sustainable biofuels.”
Airlines present a different dilemma. They produce about 2% of the CO2 emission in the atmosphere and 12% of emissions from all transport sources, according to the Air Transport Action Group. Electronic batteries may be a solution for automobiles, but their added weight limits their utility in aviation.
“All jet fuels today predominantly are made from fossil fuels and the petroleum industry,” said Dr. Rina Singh, executive vice president with Washington D.C.- based advocacy group Alternative Fuels & Chemicals Coalition (AFCC). “The airlines are one of the worst contributors of emissions in the world. But the airlines are trying to mitigate those emissions by using forest residuals.”
A lot of that innovation is happening in Georgia. Case in point: In 2016, AVAPCO LLC received a $4.7 million grant from the Department of Energy for a pilot program demonstrating it could turn woody residues into aviation fuel at its refinery in Thomaston. The company was successful and in January received a second grant, totaling $80 million, to fund a larger plant that can produce 1.2 million gallons of jet fuel annually. The plant should be operational by 2025, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“Biofuels are a versatile tool because they have the immediate potential to power our ships, trains, airlines and heavy-duty vehicles — a huge contributor to total carbon emissions — with a significantly reduced carbon footprint,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm in a release announcing the awards. “DOE investments are helping to build out a domestic bioenergy supply chain that increases America’s energy independence, creates jobs, and accelerates the adoption of cleaner fuels for our transportation needs.”
Although the focus may now be tightening around converting biomass into aviation fuel, these fuels have been blended to be used in flights before. In 2018, an Alaska Airlines flight powered by a 20% blend of sustainable biofuel from Englewood, CO-based Gevo, Inc. traveled from Seattle to Washington, D.C.
Gevo used patented technologies to convert cellulosic sugars from wood waste into renewable isobutanol. That was further converted into Gevo’s Alcohol-toJet (ATJ) fuel. The fuel met international ASTM standards, which allowed it to be used safely for commercial flights.
But Gevo isn’t the only company in this arena. In 2018, a Virgin Atlantic plane using low-carbon fuel from the LanzaTech facility in Soperton, GA, flew from Orlando to London, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Other firms are seeking ways to go beyond blended mixes and completely replace current aviation fuel residuals from the forest. This is possible because fuel produced from biomass is chemically identical to aviation fuel.
“That hydrocarbon chain is analogous to petroleum kerosene, which is basically jet fuel,” Singh said.
To produce aviation fuels, waste wood is converted to carbon monoxide and hydrogen gases through a process called gasification, according to Dr. Paul F. Schubert, CEO of Columbia, LA-based Strategic Biofuels. Then the gases are cleared of contaminants and the CO2 is captured for storage. Carbon monoxide is then converted to a paraffin wax and oil through a process called Fischer-Tropsch.
“A standard refinery process [hydrocracking] is then used to upgrade the wax and oil to the finished fuels,” Schubert said. “However, the hydrocracking conditions are substantially milder than used for converting oil because the paraffin wax and oil are extremely pure and easy to process.”
Wood Aviation Fuel Projects in the Southeast
AVAPCO isn’t alone, but it’s certainly a leading contender in the race to produce sustainable aviation fuels. In its January award cycle, DOE handed out $118 million. The $80 million given to the Thomaston plant was the largest award among the 17 recipients of funding.
With the $80 million, AVAPCO will be charged with producing fuel at a minimum sales price equivalent to conventional jet fuel and a material that can be used by rubber manufacturers for tires and other products.
There is also work going on in other Sun Belt states. Last October, the U.S. Forest Service awarded Strategic Biofuels a cooperative agreement under its Wood Innovations Program for the first phase of a project to develop a tracking system. The system enables the forestry feedstock sector to supply the raw data that can be transmitted to the biofuel producer and validated by a third-party auditor for Environmental Protection Agency compliance.
The feedstock for the fuel production needs to be compliant with the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).
“Critical elements in qualifying the thinnings and slash are documenting that they are from managed plantations established and first planted prior to December 19, 2007, and that the thinning was being done to concentrate growth in the remaining existing trees,” Schubert said. “Thinnings from natural stands can potentially be used as long as it is not from federal or state forests or from ecologically sensitive timber stands.”
Strategic Biofuels’ Louisiana Green Fuels project in Columbia, LA is expected to be the world’s first carbon-negative commercial renewable fuels plant using forestry feedstock. It is expected to start producing fuel in 2027.
The Strategic Biofuels plant will use about 1 million metric tons per year of thinnings and slash from the plantation pine industry to produce about 28 million gallons of pure synthetic diesel fuel (not biodiesel) and 4 million gallons of naphtha. The project will also use about 1 million tons per year of sawmill waste to power the plant.
“Just like synthetic motor oil is superior in performance to regular motor oil, this renewable synthetic diesel fuel will be superior to fossil diesel,” Schubert said.
Each batch of fuel produced generates federal credits and is assigned a renewable identifi cation number, according to Schubert. “The fuel will be shipped by rail to California, where it will be eligible for credits under California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS),” he said. “These credits are purchased from the producer to off set carbon emissions by the purchasers.”
And Strategic Biofuels’ work in Louisiana is only the start. “Over the next 10 to 12 years, the company expects to increase production capacity to about 160 million gallons per year from plants in Caldwell Parish, with additional plants to be built where plantation pine forests abound, including Georgia,” Schubert said.
These factories have the potential to do more than just generate fuel. “Historically, forest residuals have been a disposal challenge,” said Julie Tucker, national wood innovations program manager of bioenergy, biofuels and bioproducts at the U.S. Forest Service, said last year in a press release. “The Renewable Fuel Standard helps change that by giving the renewable energy sector a financial incentive to convert these unwanted forest residuals to high-value biofuels and renewable electricity.”
In basic terms, based on a dry ton basis, a tree is 50% cellulose and 50% lignin. In most cases, the lignin from the tree is a waste product that is often destroyed. But some European companies have found a way to use it to make the anodes in batteries that can store energy.
Helsinki, Finland-based manufacturer of pulp, paper and other forest products Stora Enso built a production facility to create “renewable bio-based carbon by turning trees into batteries,” according to the euronews.green website.
With its Lignode product, Stora Enso is replacing graphite in batteries with a lignin-based hard carbon. Graphite can be difficult to charge and hard to find.
The company says its product enables faster charging and discharging and higher cycling stability. “
An existing by-product in the production of pulp, lignin is renewable, traceable and is already being produced in millions of tonnes in Europe — enabling the fast-growing battery business to become more sustainable,” the company said on its website.
The process of manufacturing lignin-based batteries is promising for Georgia, which is becoming a desired location for electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers. Since 2018, 35 EV-related projects have contributed $23 billion in investments in Georgia, including recent announcements from EV manufacturers Hyundai Motor Group and Rivian.
In his inaugural address, Governor Brian Kemp made clear his vision of Georgia as the “electric mobility capitol of America.” In his proposed budget for fiscal year 2023-24, $500,000 has been included for the Georgia Institute of Technology to investigate the use of lignin for the production of EV batteries. If passed by the Georgia General Assembly, the research investment will be supported by an additional $250,000 grant from the US Endowment for Forestry & Communities.
Georgia is an ideal location for sustainably sourcing lignin material to keep up with increased EV demand. The state’s forests produce a net growth (growth above harvest) of 8 million dry tons of wood a year, which equates to 4 million tons of lignin a year.
In addition, lignin-based battery manufacturing could be complimentary to the existing pulp and paper sector. Currently, lignin is removed in the pulping process and utilized as a fuel source in the pulp manufacturing process.A higher-value lignin-based product stream (anode) could allow the existing pulp and paper sector to capture additional value or revenue streams.
As the technology and manufacturing sectors continue to innovate, it is exciting to know that Georgia’s forests will, once again, continue to be recognized as a sustainable solution. ■
LES SHAVER IS A BUSINESS REPORTER WITH MORE THAN 20 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE. HE HAS WRITTEN FOR A NUMBER OF PUBLICATIONS AND COVERED A VARIETY OF INDUSTRIES, INCLUDING DEFENSE, AUTOMOTIVE, COMMERCIAL AND RESIDENTIAL REAL ESTATE.
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