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NREL to produce jet fuel from switchgrass

The Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is working to demonstrate that jet fuel can be manufactured economically and in large volumes from biomass materials such as switchgrass and has partnered with Cobalt Technology, the US Navy and Show Me Energy for the project.

The results of these tests will help decipher whether the process can be ramped up for commercial production. 'This can be an important step in the efforts to continue to displace petroleum by using biomass resources,' says NREL manager for Bioprocess Integration R&D Dan Schell.

The laboratory's pre-treatment reactor and enzymatic digester reactors will process the switchgrass into fermentable sugars. Fermenters will convert these sugars into butanol using Cobalt Technologies' proprietary microorganisms and fermentation process. The butanol will then be converted to jet fuel using technology from a patent license agreement between the Navy and Cobalt. Show Me Energy is supplying the feedstock for the project.

The aim is to demonstrate that the Cobalt-Navy biojet fuel can be a cost competitive alternative that meets military specifications while using non-food based biomass. This would reduce the Department of Defense's dependence on petroleum-based products.

'The [test] runs we did last year with Cobalt Technologies producing butanol at our pilot plant were quite successful,' Rich Bolin, NREL senior project leader for partnership development, explains.

The process is expected to result in a 95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the current production of jet fuel.