PLANT

From PLANT’s print edition: Biofuel takes flight

Oil from tiny seeds will cut aerospace emissions.


The world’s first civil jet flight powered by a 100% renewable drop-in biofuel has a Canadian connection.

On Oct. 29, a Falcon 20 jet operated by the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) took to the skies over Ottawa powered by a drop-in bio fuel manufactured from Agrisoma Biosciences Inc.’s Resonance Energy Feedstock, an oily by-product that’s extracted from Brassica Carinata, or Ethiopian mustard.

These days, planes are already 70% more efficient than they were 40 years ago, but the International Civil Aviation Organization has outlined new industry emissions requirements, including a 50% reduction in global aerospace CO2 emissions by 2020.

As of July 2011, the Canadian federal government has also required diesel fuels to contain at least 2% renewable fuels, while the US has expanded its Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2) to stipulate a minimum of 21 billion gallons of biofuel from non-food crops by 2022. Bio-jet fuels from vegetable oils have also been approved by the ASTM International standard for up to 50% blend rates, which opens the door for producers to attack a market capacity of more than 58 billion gallons.

Data from October’s test-flight gathered by a T-33 aircraft tailing the NRC’s Falcon 20 proved the carinata-based fuel is cleaner and equally efficient as conventional aviation fuel, and there was a 50% reduction of aerosol emissions. Additional static engine tests showed a significant reduction in particles of up to 25% and up to 49% of black carbon emissions.

“It’s a liquid fuel, so it can go into almost anything,” says Steve Fabijanski, Agrisoma’s CEO. “But aviation fuel is one you can recognize. If you can make jet fuels greener, you can help change anything that goes into the atmosphere.”

The tests also revealed the biofuel’s engine performance is comparable to conventional fossil-based fuels, but achieved a 1.5% improvement in consumption.

Agrisoma, based in Ottawa, is an operating subsidiary of Vancouver-based Calyx Bio ventures, a technology company that owns a portfolio of patents related to modifying and engineering agricultural crop traits. Calyx has licensed its $25 million Engineered Trait Loci (ETL) technology to Agrisoma for the enhancement of carinata crops grown in southern Saskatchewan. The resulting Resonance feedstock is a member of the mustard oilseed crop family and was introduced into commercial production in 2012.

Calyx’s ETL technology is an advanced crop improvement technology that engineers new chromosome structures to carry unique combinations of traits within optimal genetic environments. The technology allows desired traits to be introduced into a specific crop chromosome in one cycle. Current introduction methods that require multiple cycles of randomly inserted traits.

Unlike more appetizing crops such as wheat and corn that store carbon as starch, carinata stores it as oil. A relative of canola – which also stores carbon as oil – carinata handles harsh growing conditions, making it ideal for the southern Saskatchewan prairies where Fabijanski notes growing conditions are often less than ideal.

“It’s a street fighter – it tolerates heat, plus insects and fungus don’t like it,” he says.

The Resonance crop used for the bio-jet fuel was grown in Kincaid, Sask. on 6,500 acres by 40 commercial growers during the summer of 2011. The crop, which is roughly 45% oil, yielded more than 500,000 gallons of product.

Fabijanski hopes crop walk-throughs with more than 500 farmers last year will boost acreage to more than 50,000 in 2013.

“We’ve got a lot of interest; there’s a ton of potential for 2013,” he says.

Taking flight

The company has also signed a manufacturing agreement with Applied Research Associates (ARA), an international research and engineering company based in Albuquerque, NM, and Chevron Lummus Global (CLG), a 50-50 joint-venture between Chevron Products Co. and Lummus Technology Inc. Together, they’ve developed an integrated process called the Biofeuls ISOCONVERSION (BIC) process, which turns Agrisoma’s feedstock into a drop-in grade aerospace biofuel, known commercially as ReadiJet.

BIC uses highly pressurized, super hot water to crack and cyclize plant or algal oils into lower molecular weight oil, similar to light sweet petroleum crude, without the sulphur, metals or other impurities typically found in petroleum-based alternatives.

The resulting crude contains oxygen in the form of organic acids. It’s removed in a second step that uses CLG’s process to hydrotreat the crude into specification-quality drop-in jet and diesel fuels, tailored to meet commercial and military jet fuel applications.

“The fuel needs to be drop-in ready,” says Fabijanski. “There can’t be any changes to infrastructure, handling, engines or fuel systems.”

Extracting energy from natural sources is not a new concept, but commercializing a fuel that’s 100% renewable and drop-in ready to power massive jetliners certainly is.

“It’s not an oil you’d want to eat, but it’s got more carbon than you’d have in any food oil,” says Fabijanski. “You’re giving the guys making the fuel more carbon to work with, which is a positive.”

The feedstock is also providing Canada’s largest agricultural centre with a potentially lucrative economic boost.

Indeed, Fabijanski estimates a two million acre crop would generate more than $1 billion in new farmgate activities and another $1 billion in value added processing in Saskatchewan’s prairies. And a crop that big would generate more than 800 million litres of carinatta-based fuel.

“If you look at the amount of fuel burned here, Western Canada could become a green aviation hub,” he says.

The company has a close relationship with the NRC, having housed its research facilities at the NRC’s Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon since 2003.

And there’s funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) to support growing the high yielding oilseed crops.

Fabijanski says the company and its partners are also working closely with aerospace firms and airlines to bring the biofuel to market.

“This is going to happen. People aren’t just kicking tires.”