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Nov 20, 2017 | By Troy Carter

Biofuel of the future? Naval researchers making hot ‘designer’ diesel with abundant feedstock

Navy's cutting-edge fuels science accessible to industry through TechLink, the DoD's national partnership intermediary

News Article Image of Biofuel of the future? Naval researchers making hot ‘designer’ diesel with abundant feedstock
A Navy EA-18G Growler takes flight on 100-percent alternative biofuel during a test flight in 2016. (Adam Skoczylas/Navy)

The Navy wants to be ready to fight and fly with flexible fuel sources and its chemists in California are designing powerful new biofuels from sustainable sources.

While Navy test pilots have already flown on 100-percent biofuel, traditional sources for those fuels have issues. Soybean and rapeseed oil-based fuels can compete with food, and palm and jatropha oil fuel production has led to deforestation in tropical environments.

But Dr. Ben Harvey and a team of chemists at the Naval Air Warfare Center-Weapons Division’s research department in China Lake, California, recently tested a new kind of renewable diesel made from lignocellulosic biomass – the most abundant class of raw material for biofuels on the planet.

The new dioxolane fuel was produced through an acid catalyzed condensation of 2- tridecanone, an off-the-shelf food grade flavor enhancer made from common plants.

Published on November 8 in Sustainable Energy & Fuels, their results were astonishing.

Dr. Ben Harvey, Navy research chemist, hard at work in the lab. (Navy photo)

“These fuels exhibit comparable net heats of combustion to conventional biodiesel, while maintaining derived cetane numbers between 82-91, values which are 20–30 units higher than conventional biodiesel and 40–50 units higher than petroleum-derived diesel fuel,” Harvey and fellow Navy chemist Kale Harrison wrote.

The new fuel can be fermented from lignocellulosic biomass sugars using special microorganisms like yeast or E. coli as miniature biorefineries, and then blended with traditional diesel as a tailored, clean-burning enhancer.

And “this biosynthetic approach may allow for the generation of these fuels on industrially relevant scales while eliminating competition with food sources and promoting responsible use of land resources,” the Navy chemists wrote.

The chemistry branch at the naval laboratory has been conducting research on renewable jet fuels and high density turbine fuels since 2007. Its effort has led to a broad portfolio of patents, which can be licensed by businesses for product development through TechLink.

“Ben Harvey and the team at China Lake are incredibly prolific and have built a sizable patent portfolio,” said Marti Elder, the senior technology manager at TechLink who is assisting the Navy’s tech transfer office form industry partnerships.

“With diesel accounting for about 20 percent of ground transportation fuel in the U.S. the commercial potential for this is obviously massive,” Elder said. “And then there’s aviation.”

Troy Carter can be reached at troy.carter@montana.edu or 406-994-7796.

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