Jet fuel from hooch comes closer as ASTM clears way for ethanol-to-jet, higher ATJ blends


In Washington, an ASTM International Sub-Committee has voted in favor of revising specification D7566 (Standard Specification for Aviation Turbine Fuel Containing Synthesized Hydrocarbons) to include ethanol in addition to isobutanol; and increase the approved blend levels from 30% to 50% — that is, the percentage of alcohol-to-jet fuel allowed when blended with petro-based jet fuel.  These revisions to the D7566 specification will now go to the full ASTM International for final approval which is expected later this year.

In other news, up to 25 small refineries have been granted waivers from complying with ethanol blending mandates under the US Renewable Fuel Standard — and makes the advent of new alternative markets for ethanol of greater-than expected importance for producers.

The news comes just as US ethanol exports are on the rise, as well — another important market for rising US production.

Ethanol exports rebound

In Washington, the US Energy Information Administration is reporting that U.S. ethanol exports totaled a record 218.7 million gallons (mg) in February—up 148% from January—and nearly 50 mg more than the previous record set in December 2011. 

According to analysis by the Renewable Fuels Association, U.S. exporters sent a record 103.2 mg of ethanol to Brazil—besting the previous monthly high to Brazil set more than six years ago. February marked the fourth straight month that Brazil was the top U.S. export customer, taking nearly half of all ethanol exports. According to the data, China increased its purchases of U.S. ethanol to a 22-month high of 33.1 mg. Canada and Singapore captured the third and fourth spots at 22.0 mg and 14.8 mg, respectively. These four markets netted 80% of all U.S. ethanol shipments, with the remaining volumes scooped up by 30 countries. Year-to-date exports stood at 307.0 mg through February, marking the strongest start in history.

Shipments of undenatured fuel ethanol in February expanded by an astounding 183% to 135.6 mg, with all the largest markets boosting U.S. imports. Sales gains in Brazil equaled 139% over January at 97.3 mg (72% market share). China (11.1 mg), India (8.9 mg), the Philippines (8.6 mg), South Korea (3.6 mg), and Mexico (3.1 mg) were other top markets for undenatured fuel ethanol in February.

The NLACM problem

Why are ethanol producers not raging with happiness at the news of a new aviation fuel market Although it sounds more like a goose trying to say “You’ll like him” — it’s the Natural Law of Alternative Commodity Markets, and it’s the biggest single impediment, globally, retarding the advance of renewable transport fuels as a world-scale low-carbon alternative to petroleum.

NLACM states that no one will make a fuel, however attractive to customers (such as a drop-in hydrocarbon fuel) if the market value of the intermediates (such as an alcohol) is higher when sold separately.

In other words, no one will ever make a hydrocarbon fuel from Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch, excepting a complete emergency, no matter if the technology exists or not. And no one will make one gallon of $2.00 aviation fuel from 2.1 gallons of $1.51 ethanol unless extraordinary circumstances apply.  We look at the NLACM problem here.

The Alcohol to jet fuel backstory

The aviation sector is now subject to global de-carbonization compliance regulations beginning in 2020 under the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Given such great demand, and now with the ATJ specification in place, a full supply chain exists to effectively scale up and drive production costs down over the coming years while carbon offset policies are advanced.

Jet from booze, and booze from waste gas: The Digest’s 2017 Multi-Slide Guide to LanzaTech/PNNL Syngas-to-ATJ Fuels

Renewable jet fuel’s progress: The Digest’s 2017 Multi-Slide Guide to Gevo’s ATJ

Jet fuel from (any) bio-alcohol: The Digest’s 2018 Multi-Slide Guide to Byogy Renewables

Affordable, renewable hydrocarbons made from ethanol: The Digest’s 2017 Multi-Slide Guide to Vertimass

Reaction from the stakeholders

Bob Dinneen, CEO, Renewable Fuels Association

“We now may have a viable means whereby ethanol can play a significant role in support of de-carbonizing the aviation sector. It is exciting to have yet another market opportunity for ethanol.”

Kevin Weiss, CEO, Byogy Renewables

“It’s one thing to have a great commodity product, but without an operative supply chain it’s difficult to sell.” The new ASTM specification allows jet fuel, produced from ethanol under the ATJ process, to be sold commercially on a global basis. We now have the ability to supplement and leverage the existing downstream petroleum industry with a well distributed ATJ Sustainable Aviation Fuel that can be produced anywhere by building on the existing global ethanol supply chain.

Pat Gruber, CEO, Gevo

“Gevo’s proprietary ATJ process technology applies to ethanol as well as isobutanol. At Gevo, we appreciate the optionality that is created by adding ethanol to the list of acceptable feedstocks for ATJ. Our demonstration plant located at South Hampton Resources in Silsbee, TX has the unit operations already installed to convert ethanol into jet fuel, however to date we have been producing higher value added products from Silsbee. That said, our ATJ technology could leverage certain, already installed ethanol capacity, depending on the GHG footprint, such as our Luverne Plant, and only require a buildout of the hydrocarbon section of the plant. Our Luverne Plant uses documented ‘low carbon corn,’ and that puts the Luverne Plant in the position of being able to take advantage of isobutanol and/or ethanol to ATJ as we build out the Luverne Plant for hydrocarbons.”

Gerard Ostheimer, Senior Advisor, below50 campaign

“below50 translates corporate sustainability commitments into increased demand for Low Carbon Fuels to de-carbonize transport. We are particularly interested in reducing GHG emissions from difficult to electrify sectors. We are thrilled by the progress of the ATJ platform because it is one of the few technologies that can produce sustainable, full replacement hydrocarbon fuels that aviation, heavy transport, and maritime demand. We look forward to working with Byogy to accelerate the uptake of drop-in fuels with GHG emissions less than 50 percent of their fossil fuel counterparts.”