Crop-based jet fuel offers major economic development opportunities for the state
A biojet fuel being developed at the University of North Dakota may add a major new market for North Dakota oil crops, thanks to a chance chat at a Graduate School picnic in fall 2002.
It was there that Dr. Wayne Seames, associate professor of chemical engineering, bumped into his friend, Dr. Paul Lindseth, associate dean of the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.
So, asked Seames, has anyone thought about using biodiesel as an aviation fuel?
Good question, replied Lindseth. Try visiting with Ted Aulich at UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center. He’s been working with biodiesel and a biological avgas (used in propeller planes).
Four years later, Seames and Aulich submitted a provisional patent for a process to generate biojet fuel from crop oils, such as soybean oil, or from animal fats and wastes. Since North Dakota is one of the world’s major growing regions for oilseed crops, this invention may have a significant impact on the economy of North Dakota as well as on the aviation industry. This is just one example of how UND scientists and engineers are working to turn energy promises into a parade of cheaper, cleaner fuels, and an enterprise to support them.
“Making America energy-independent is a real tall order, but one that we’re eager to tackle here at UND,” said Dr. Peter Alfonso, vice president for research. Alfonso is supporting the effort on campus to expand both the energy research infrastructure and the team of scientists, technicians, and students focused on biofuels and other sustainable energy R&D.
“America’s energy future — how we heat and cool ourselves, power our industries, and move ourselves around — depends on work those researchers are doing right now at UND on renewable fuel resources and clever new ways of burning fuels with less impact on the environment,” Alfonso said.
He is unambiguously proud of the school’s sustainable energy work, noting that UND’s across-the-board research enterprise now includes biofuels (vegetable oil-based jet fuel, corn- and other grain- and biomass-based ethanol); gasification of biomass such as wood chips and crop residue; wind power and wind-generated hydrogen; and advanced technologies for coal, the country’s most abundant fossil fuel.
“UND has always been a world leader in energy research due to the presence of the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center,” said Seames. Collaboration with the EERC has attracted many faculty with energy-related research expertise. “The ability to collaborate with EERC researchers was one of the reasons I came to UND,” Seames said. “Our partnership on the biojet fuel project demonstrates how the slightly different missions of faculty and EERC researchers can be accommodated in important research projects.”
Over the past couple of years, faculty-led research in sustainable and renewable energy technologies has accelerated. “Bottom line: we’re significantly expanding our energy research,” Alfonso said. “It’s really all about the production and use of sustainable energy resources in this country to reduce and eventually replace our dependence on foreign sources of energy.”
Developing alternative bulk fuels for power plants, power generation technologies, transportation fuels such as biodiesel, and more efficient engines are all vital parts of educating future energy scientists and engineers at UND while contributing to solutions important to the global society.
“We’re looking at and experimenting with all of the emerging technologies that will eventually transform the way we drive,” said Dr. Manohar Kulkarni, chair of mechanical engineering. “With this kind of research, we want to promote environmental awareness and alternative energy savvy.”
The campuswide sustainable energy research effort includes participants from the School of Engineering and Mines, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the College of Business and Public Administration. The Energy & Environmental Research Center also has a large number of programs focused on sustainable energy solutions. Alfonso emphasizes that this is all part of a long-term research-boosting strategy at UND.
The future of biofuels?
Like many good research stories, the development of biojet fuel started with a different problem in mind.
“When we first looked at this, our initial incentive was to use biodiesel to reduce the emissions and environmental impact of jet fuel, similar to the reductions achieved when blended with traditional diesel,” said Seames.
The team tested several mixtures of jet and biodiesel fuel in a commercial helicopter turbine engine and found some positive results. At cruise and take-off, “We saw substantial reduction in particulate emissions with no problems in operational performance. So that showed promise,” said Seames. They also ran fuel specification tests to see how closely the biodiesel/jet fuel blend matched FAA and military specifications “to see if there were any showstoppers. And there was a big showstopper for these blends. When you get above 2 percent of biodiesel in the jet fuel, the freezing point rose.”
”It’s one thing if you stall a tractor in 44 below zero weather. You haul the tractor into a heated garage and wait for nature to take its course. But if you are at 33,000 feet (where it is equally cold) and suddenly your fuel line begins to freeze, that’s more than just annoying,” said Seames.
The increased freezing point meant that biodiesel as currently produced was not a feasible biojet fuel. But it also presented a challenge. “At that point, we knew that we had the opportunity to develop a new fuel,” he continued.
“None of the previous work (on biojet fuels) was either commercially viable or got you down to the required temperature of 50 below,” said Seames.
A chance to create a new fuel meant a new approach. For Seames, who had worked in the oil refinery business, that meant getting down to the building blocks: “The first thing I thought was let’s break apart the molecules. We’re chemical engineers. Let’s change the chemistry.”
The team went back to research journals and found that the types of chemical modifications Seames anticipated making were easy to achieve with these crops.
“Another goal of mine was to try to generate a fuel that would not require a change to the fuel transportation and storage infrastructure — pipelines, storage tanks, distribution pumps, etc.,” said Seames. “We have invested billions in the infrastructure for petroleum-based fuels. So it was important for us to try to make a direct substitute.
“We basically have it now,” said Seames. The problem at this point is that they can’t develop the technology fast enough. “This invention has generated substantial commercial interest. Investors want a final, proven product now so they can start producing and selling it. I even had a call from an aerial stunt team that wanted to know where they could purchase the fuel so that they could use it in their stunt planes!” Seames said. “However, given our current resources, we can’t even make enough of it fast enough for all of the turbine testing we need to perform.”
UND’s technology transfer officer, Dr. James Petell, believes there is a future for UND biojet fuel and that from a production perspective, the future will be mostly in North Dakota. “Now that a provisional patent has been submitted for the process, we have begun negotiations that will bring in the partners needed for commercialization and the installation of biojet fuel plants in North Dakota and other oilseed crop regions of the world,” Petell said.
“These developments could have a tremendous impact for agriculture,” said Seames. He pointed to a College of Business and Public Administration/School of Engineering and Mines student-developed model business plan, called Greenflight, LLC, which offered one outline for the commercialization potential of a biojet fuel plant. According to the students, the fuel used on one flight from Denver to LaGuardia Airport in New York by a Boeing 777 airplane would consume the oil produced from 40 acres of soybeans.
The new biojet fuel technology is cost competitive with current biodiesel plants, but both currently require government subsidies to compete with petroleum-based fuels, even at this summer’s high prices.
“But there are ways of bringing those costs down,” said Seames. For example, the current technology to extract the oil from soybeans or canola was created to produce cooking oil. “What we hope to do in the future is to look at new technologies or modifications to the existing technologies that will reduce the cost of extracting the oil because we’re not doing food grade. If it works out well, we’ll avoid the extraction step altogether, which is currently the highest cost of the whole biojet fuel process. I’ve got some interesting ideas we’re ready to try as soon as we can secure the funding,” said Seames.
“Of course, there is also an educational mission,” he continued. “One of the aspects of biofuels that we are trying to educate the agricultural and financial communities and political leaders in North Dakota about is that when you are talking about ag-based fuels, the cost to harvest soybeans or canola and ship the raw material to processing plants is substantial.
“This puts North Dakota, used to growing agricultural products and shipping them out of state, in an unfamiliar position,” said Seames. Dr. Jeffrey Stamp, who holds the Endowed Chair of Entrepreneurship in the College of Business and Public Administration, looked at the 80 biodiesel plants that have either been built or are in the process of being built in the United States. Only one is going into North Dakota.
“If you want to do more for substantial economic development, the big hitters are these types of plants,” said Seames.
“We estimate that a multi-product crop oil processing facility on site with a biofuel manufacturing facility would improve the local economy an additional $7 of impact for every dollar of revenue generated. And for every direct job created at the facility, an additional three indirect jobs are created in the community,” said Stamp.