University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture awarded FAA grant to analyse biorefinery supply chains

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Researchers from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) have received a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin a three-year project to perform a multitude of techno-market analyses of US biorefinery supply chains from feedstock to alternative jet fuels.

The amount of worldwide air travel is expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. Recent projections indicate an increase in average growth rate of 3.7 % over the next five years, followed by a 2.5% increase per year through 2031.

The projected air travel growth in conjunction with environmental issues regarding jet-fuel petroleum, a finite resource that releases greenhouse gases when combusted, have the international aviation industry looking for ways to accommodate air traffic demand, while also achieving its goal of carbon-neutral growth starting in 2020.

To achieve this goal, an aggressive plan has been set in motion that includes increasing engine performance, deployment of lightweight aircraft materials, and other operational improvements. However, a vital piece of the plan is the expanded use of alternative aviation fuels derived from renewable biomass sources—a source that UTIA knows well.

For more than a decade, UTIA has been researching biofuels and the bioeconomy, providing guidance and collaborations in biofuels programming to groups such as Chevron Corp., Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, United States Department of Agriculture and more.

In order to expand the use of renewable fuels, which may reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 80%, the pace of commercialisation must be accelerated. Acceleration will require the development of production systems that increase economic efficiency. It is therefore important to create decision tools that encompass the manifold interaction of operations along the supply chain.

Southeast of US

In addition to analysing biorefinery supply chains and feedstock, the researchers will lay the groundwork for a Southeast biorefinery.

According to the UTIA, the Southeastern states grow many types of biomass feedstock, which could prove significant when anchoring the supply chain.

“The South is well positioned to convert the biomass grown by agricultural producers for dedicated use as aviation fuel, adding value and providing a more sustainable means of travel,” said UTIA professor and lead researcher Burton C. English.

He added: “This grant provides UTIA an opportunity to assist the aviation industry in advancing a sustainable biomass solution that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, bolster rural economic development, increase farm income, and lessen dependency on foreign oil.  

“Through opportunities like this, researchers can focus their attention and provide potential solutions to emerging issues.”

This research is part of the Aviation Sustainability Center (ASCENT) project—a cooperative aviation research organisation co-led by Washington State University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

ASCENT is funded by the FAA, NASA, DOD, Transport Canada, and EPA. The research cooperative includes 16 leading US research universities and more than 60 private-sector stakeholders. Additional resources include a partnership with international research programs, federal agencies and national laboratories.

The UTIA stated that the $225,000 grant provides the first year of initial funding for this new ASCENT emphasis.