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Peoria Ag Lab scientists using soybean oil to develop a better jet biofuel

Continental Airlines Biofuel, Monte Hawkins
David J. Phillip/AP
In this Jan. 7, 2009 file photo, Monte Hawkins prepares to remove the fuel line attached to a Continental Airlines jet for the first biofuel-powered demonstration flight of a U.S. commercial airliner, at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Many in the industry believe that without a replacement for jet fuel, growth in air travel could be threatened by forthcoming rules that limit global aircraft emissions. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

Soybean oil offers a lot of potential in blending up a cleaner jet fuel. But to date, wide-scale adoption has presented problems.

Unlike traditional biodiesel blending, a jet fuel blend requires breaking down the soybean oil molecules into their most basic structures through an entirely different chemical process, said Ken Doll, a research chemist at the Peoria Ag Lab.

Doll said some companies use a precious metal called ruthenium to catalyze reactions to achieve the oil composition needed to blend with traditional petrochemical fuels.

But that process also results in a fuel with insufficient "aromatic" compounds needed to achieve the proper density for jet fuel, and to keep the jet engine seals working properly. That means less of it can be blended with conventional jet fuel, limiting its usefulness.

Doll, along with fellow researchers Bryan Moser and Gerhard Knothe, created a new six-step process using iridium instead of ruthenium.

"Through a little bit of work, we kind of adapted the technology we were using to this iridium system, and we were able to have success," Doll said. "So essentially now, using our technology, you can make essentially the amount of aromatics that you want. And so if you're gonna use our technology, you could make a fuel and you could blend it at whatever ratio with your other fuel in order to meet meet your exact specifications."

Moser said any viable fuel needs to use a very cheap production process to compete economically with petrochemical fuels. That's an advantage of soybean oils over algal oils made from oceanic algae.

Doll said not only soybean oils, but any plant-based oil with significant amounts of oleic acid, could be used to produce a jet biofuel using this process.

"There's a lot of pennycress; that has received a fair bit of attention. That type of oil would work well. And in theory, you could use canola oil, as well," Doll said.

The soybean oil process is currently awaiting a patent. The next step will be finding an industry partner to scale up the process beyond the laboratory's confines. That includes securing different feed stocks.

"We're looking at using less expensive oils or crude oils that haven't been refined yet to help lower those costs," said Moser. "And hopefully a commercial partner would be able to help us with that."

Doll said there's still a lot of work to be done on refining and scaling the biofuel process before it hits the market, noting "it's a marathon, as opposed to a sprint."

Moser said it would provide a benefit to not only the agriculture sector and farmers, but also the airline industry and the environment.

"They're looking at ways to reduce their carbon footprint. And if they can replace some of their petrochemical fuel with a renewable agricultural base fuel, that would help them meet some of their environmental objectives, in addition to lowering greenhouse gas emissions," he said. "And so it would be basically everybody benefits: the farmers, the airline industry, the environment and people who breathe air. So, basically everybody benefits if this ultimate proves commercially successful."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.