Transfer of PNNL's Ethanol-to-Jet Fuel to LanzaTech

To stay relevant, commercial aviation needs to decouple carbon emission growth from passenger growth. This problem presents a need to pair conventional jet fuels with fuels from renewable sources that have high energy density and low emissions. That’s now feasible on a commercial scale thanks to the partnership between Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and LanzaTech to develop an ethanol-based jet fuel that can use any sustainable ethanol as a feedstock.

PNNL started to develop the catalytic chemistry needed to create jet fuel from ethanol with a small in-house project. From that technical baseline, it partnered with industry. After eight years, a breakthrough fuel was ready for commercialization. The process can use ethanol from any sustainable source, including waste gas captured at steel mills, energy crops, cellulosic residues, and municipal waste. The ethanol is converted to alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK) through PNNL’s unique catalytic process. The fuel produced by blending ethanol-based ATJ-SPK with conventional jet fuel is cleaner burning and pipeline-ready.

At PNNL, the technology transfer was led by a core group of scientists and specialists—John Holladay, Corinne Drennan, Rick Orth, and Eric Lund—who envisioned, led, and supported the technical, funding, and legal steps needed to go from idea to process and on to a patented, licensed technology.  A PNNL technical team—Richard Hallen, Michael Lilga, and Karl Albrecht—used bench-scale experiments to develop a key conversion step and generated data and fuels for characterizing preliminary process models.

At LanzaTech, vision, funding, and technical and legal help came from CEO Jennifer Holmgren; executive vice president for Chemistry, Catalysis, and Fuels Michelle Kocal; vice president of Government Relations Lauren Harmon; and patent counsel Frank Molinaro. LanzaTech scaled up and demonstrated the process, produced large volumes of ATJ-SPK fuel, provided financial support, and brokered alliances with other industrial partners.

In 2008, PNNL researchers began developing the catalytic chemistries needed to convert sustainable feedstocks into jet fuel. In 2010, PNNL began a technical collaboration with Imperium Renewables, joined by LanzaTech in 2012. This culminated in the 2018 technology transfer from PNNL to LanzaTech.

The new fuel will lower the cost and the carbon footprint of jet fuel, trimming down the 3 to 5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions linked to jet aircraft. It also fulfills PNNL’s green-fuels mission. The fuel, already internationally approved, could help airlines meet long-term carbon and fuel efficiency goals, reduce investor risk, and open new markets for sustainable ethanol. This technology transfer illustrates the importance of national laboratory-industry partnerships in developing technologies to address environmental and societal challenges.

Contact: Dr. John Holladay, (509) 375-2025, john.holladay@pnnl.gov

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