A process for converting carbon-rich pollution to jet fuel powered a commercial flight for the first time, marking history and ushering in a new era for low-carbon aviation. The Virgin Atlantic Airlines flight from Orlando to London using a Boeing 747 was years in the making. Through a combination of chemistry, biotechnology, engineering and catalysis, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and its industrial partner LanzaTech, working with Virgin Atlantic, have shown the world that carbon can be recycled and used for commercial flight.
The Chicago-based company LanzaTech developed a unique carbon recycling technology that operates similarly to traditional fermentation. But, instead of using sugars and yeast to make alcohol, waste carbon-rich gases—such as those found at industrial manufacturing sites—are converted by bacteria to fuels and chemicals, like ethanol. The ethanol can be used for a range of low carbon products, including alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK), which now is eligible to be used in commercial flights at up to 50 percent blends with conventional jet fuel.
LanzaTech turned to the catalytic expertise of PNNL, which developed a unique catalytic process and proprietary catalyst to upgrade the ethanol to (ATJ-SPK). PNNL’s catalyst removes oxygen from the ethanol in the form of water, and then combines the remaining hydrocarbon molecules to form chains large enough for jet fuel without forming aromatics that lead to soot when burned.
After PNNL produced five gallons of the desired fuel, LanzaTech then scaled up the entire process. The ethanol was converted to 4,000 gallons of ATJ-SPK at LanzaTech's Freedom Pines facility in Georgia and met all the specifications required for use in commercial aviation. In April 2018, an international standards body approved the ethanol-to-jet fuel pathway for aviation turbine fuel at up to a 50 percent blend ratio with standard, petroleum-based jet fuel based on LanzaTech's Research Report—the culmination of a multi-year collaboration with PNNL.
DOE's Bioenergy Technologies Office has been instrumental in supporting the technology development. With co-funding from BETO, LanzaTech is now preparing a design and engineering package for an ATJ production facility implementing the LanzaTech-PNNL ethanol based ATJ-SPK pathway. LanzaTech's Freedom Pines site is the location of a planned facility which would be able to convert sustainable ethanol to millions of gallons per year of low carbon jet and diesel fuels.
Public-private partnerships were key to this success. PNNL provided internal funding and technology assistance. In addition to BETO supporting various stages of the research, commercial partners such as LanzaTech, Virgin Atlantic, Boeing, and HSBC provided scale-up expertise and insight into aviation industry requirements. Previous fundamental research at PNNL, sponsored by DOE’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences, laid the groundwork for understanding the chemistry and catalysis functions.