US researches awarded grant to commercialise lignin-based jet biofuel
Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities in the US have been awarded a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant to explore the market potential of their jet biofuel research.
The team has successfully demonstrated a new, water-based process for deconstructing and recovering lignin from biomass and converting it into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons, which could be certified as jet fuel in the future.
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of biological systems engineering and principal investigator for the grant, holds a patent on the process.
Lignin, a polymer that makes plants woody and rigid, is a waste product in the biofuels production process.
“Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate a flexible catalytic process that selectively converts all the carbon in the lignin into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons at minimal cost,” Yang said.
Libing Zhang, WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate and entrepreneurial lead on the project, said commercial airlines are facing pressure to reduce emissions, which is why they may have an interest in seeing a lignin-derived alternative fuel brought to market.
Yang said his team has worked for several years on projects funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, National Science Foundation, US Department of Energy, US Department of Transportation, Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation, and Boeing.
“The airlines see alternative jet fuel as a strategic need, helping guarantee smooth business operations and a long-term and sustainable jet fuel supply,” Zhang said. “Our conversion process can potentially reduce jet fuel cost to end users by using lignin waste from refineries and less expensive catalytic upgrading to jet fuel.”
She said the NSF I-Corps programme helps leading researchers develop a business platform for their research and technology by recreating processes and strategies that are already working well within the industry.
Yang and his team are working under the mentorship of Terri L. Butler from the University of Washington for the business aspects of the project.
“The NSF I-Corps programme encourages researchers to step out of the academic environment and listen to the needs of industry,” Butler said. “The researchers can then determine if their technology solves an important problem or if their research efforts should head in a different direction.
“This is the approach our team has taken as we work on possible business models for our jet biofuel technology while considering the needs of customer segments, key partners, cost structures, and revenue streams,” she said.