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EERC Renewable Designer Fuel Makes Aviation History

The Mojave Desert has seen a number of jet engine and rocket tests throughout the history of the aerospace industry, so the launch of a small rocket from its flat valley floor near San Diego in 2009 likely looked much like any other. But when the rocket zoomed from its pad and reached an altitude of 20,000 feet, it was historic in that it was propelled by a jet fuel made not from petroleum, but canola and soybean oil.

The wholly renewable jet fuel was created by researchers at UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC). The team, made up of a number of UND graduates, worked for years to perfect the process in order to meet the military’s strict standard that the fuel meet all the specifications of petroleum-based jet fuel, or what’s known in aviation as JP-8.

“It looks, smells and acts just like petroleum-based JP-8,” says Chris Zygarlicke, ’87, the Deputy Associate Director for Research at the EERC and Program Manager for the EERC’s Centers for Renewable Energy and Biomass Utilization.

Besides the fact that the EERC’s fuel comes from a renewable source, it also has the advantage of fungibility, or being easily able to mix with or entirely replace JP-8. “That’s an exciting aspect of this research,” says Zygarlicke. “You make a fuel that’s fungible in the sense that you don’t have to create a new engine. There are no issues. It goes right into the engine with no problems. It can be blended too.”

Zygarlicke describes the process as “very simple,” but it sounds like anything but simple to someone without a chemical engineering degree. “You take an oil and strip off the oxygen. We crack that in a cracker similar to what’s used in an oil refinery and then we upgrade that. It’s called isomerization. You break the chains into more of a fuel quality that gives you all the properties of a jet fuel.”

During its research into renewable JP-8, the EERC discovered that not only could a number of crop oils like crambe and camelina be used in the process, but yellow grease and the by-product of oil-producing algae work as well.

The process is viable in that it does not take a large input of crop oils to produce a gallon of the fuel. Zygarlicke says it has better energy efficiency than ethanol from corn and could be done without making great demands on U.S. cropland. “If we use land that is a little marginal to grow crop oil and maybe develop other ways to use a lot of the waste oil that’s out there, we could replace a significant portion of the military’s need for hydrocarbon fuel,” he says.

As a result of the EERC’s and other labs’ work on renewable jet fuel, the military is interested in the product, but for now the fuel is too expensive to produce. “As economies of scale come into play, then the costs definitely will come down per gallon,” he says.

The military has other concerns, though, that could make renewable fuel viable sooner rather than later. The renewable fuel could prove to be a strategic advantage. A military unit could use renewable JP-8 to power tanks and generators, as well as produce on-demand battlefield hydrogen. Congress might mandate a certain amount of JP-8 come from renewable sources in order to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign sources of petroleum.

The EERC’s research has also shown that the renewable fuel burns cleaner than traditional JP-8. “They (the military) want to go green,” says Zygarlicke. “Most of the alternative fuels are cleaner burning. Emissions are huge during takeoff.”

After years of study, the crop oil-refining process is ready for commercial production. “We have a bid-ready design for an oil refinery. The refinery could add on extra equipment, take triglyceride oil feedstock, and make this 100% renewable jet fuel or blend it into a petroleum-based jet fuel. A green fuel is good for public relations and good as a first step to prove to the world that this can be done.”

While the EERC hires research scientists from all over the world, more than half (58%) of its 330 employees have been educated at UND. Zygarlicke himself was a teacher for a while before going back to school to get his master’s degree from UND. He says the Chemical Engineering Department at UND has a “fine program,” so graduates can get a good salary working for big name companies around the country.  “A lot of these graduates grew up around this area or have family here. After they’ve been out working for a few years, they want to come back to the area, and we hire them here at the EERC. Three or four key people in our jet fuel project are UND grads who left the area for work and have returned.”

The EERC also employs UND graduate and undergraduate students while they are in school, giving them valuable hands-on experience at a world-renowned research lab. “It’s a great opportunity for us to attract a work force,” say Zygarlicke.

This summer, the EERC took its research into alternative fuel a step further when it created a JP-8 substitute using biomass and coal feedstocks. The EERC says adding coal to the mix reduces the environmental footprint of the fuel, limits land use in competition with food production and draws on the vast coal reserves of the United States.

“With this innovative technology, we can safely and responsibly develop our coal and biomass resources at home in North Dakota and throughout the United States,” said EERC Director Gerald Groenewold. “We are directly responding to the President's blueprint for a secure energy future, putting the EERC front and center in providing solutions to the pressing energy needs of the world by teaming with coal, petroleum and biomass producers.”

The new fuel burns cleanly and is now being tested further by the U.S. military.

Might it become routine in the future for a U.S. Air Force F-16 to be powered by a fuel grown in a field in North Dakota or derived from a fast food restaurant’s used grease? If so, that rocket test launch from the Mojave Desert in 2009 will likely be looked at as a watershed moment in aviation history.