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PNNL and LanzaTech recycle carbon into new jet fuel used in historic flight

Carbon-rich pollution converted to a jet fuel will power a commercial flight for the first time. Virgin Atlantic Airlines' Boeing 747 transatlantic flight from Orlando (MCO), Florida to London Gatwick (LGW) will usher in a new era for low-carbon aviation. Through a combination of chemistry, biotechnology, engineering, and catalysis, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and its industrial partner LanzaTech have demonstrated that carbon can be recycled and used for commercial aviation.

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PNNL researcher Rich Hallen helped develop a process that converts ethanol to jet fuel. In partnership with LanzaTech, which produces ethanol from industrial waste emissions, PNNL’s catalytic technology helped to produce 4 000 (US) gallons (≈ 15 100 litres) of ATJ-SPK fuel, some of which is being used on a Virgin Atlantic commercial flight from Orlando to London (photo courtesy Andrea Starr/PNNL).

LanzaTech, Inc.,  a US-headed waste-gas-to-fuel and chemicals technology company has 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, such as ethanol.

The ethanol can be used for a range of low carbon products, including alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK) which is now eligible to be used in commercial flights at up to 50 percent blends with conventional jet fuel.

PNNL developed catalyst

LanzaTech turned to the catalytic expertise of PNNL, a US Department of Energy National Laboratory, which developed a unique catalytic process and a proprietary catalyst to upgrade the ethanol to ATJ-SPK.

The 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.

LanzaTech then scaled up the technology. The ethanol was converted to 4 000 (US) gallons (≈ 15 100 litres) 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.

This fuel exceeds the properties of petroleum-based jet fuel in terms of efficiency and burns much cleaner. And by recycling carbon already in the environment — in this case waste gas streams — it lets the world keep more petroleum sequestered the ground. The technology not only provides a viable source of sustainable jet fuel but also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, said John Holladay, Deputy Manager for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EREE), PNNL

ATJ planned for Georgia facility

The US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) 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.

Thanks to collaborative efforts of our friends, partners, and governments across both sides of the Atlantic, we are showing the world that carbon capture and utilization is ready today. Many people thought recycling waste carbon emissions into jet fuel wasn’t possible. We have shown that waste carbon is an opportunity, not a liability and that carbon can be reused to provide sustainable benefits for all. Together we can create the carbon future we need, said Jennifer Holmgren, CEO, LanzaTech.

Historic first flight

As revealed by Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group and a LanzaTech partner last month, a Virgin Atlantic Airlines Boeing 747 transatlantic flight from Orlando International (MCO), Florida to London Gatwick (LGW) will fly on a blend of LanzaTech’s recycled carbon jet fuel.

The flight departed MCO on the evening of October 2 marking the first commercial flight using such a fuel demonstrating “the art of the possible” and be a first step towards making the ground-breaking new low carbon technology a “mainstream reality” as Sir Branson put it.

A joint Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech press briefing was held at Orlando
International Airport (MCO) prior the flight take-off bound for London
Gatwick Airport (LGW) in the UK (photo courtesy MCO).

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