CHINA LAKE, Calif. — The U.S. Navy is teaming up with British scientists to study the sustainable, biosynthetic production of jet fuel in seawater.
“There are plenty of examples how biology has made superior materials,” said Dr. Patrick Rose, science director for synthetic biology at the Office of Naval Research. “For example, spider silk for its elasticity or nacre in sea shells for its strength and toughness. Synthetic biology is a technology platform that allows scientists to apply engineering principles to re-engineer biological processes and make desired products from such amazing natural features.”
In December 2018, scientists from the University of Manchester, the United Kingdom’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, and researchers from the Navy and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) visited the Chemistry Division at Naval Air Warfare Center’s Weapons Division in China Lake, California, to discuss converting biosynthetic molecules into high density fuels for missile and jet propulsion.
“I’m thrilled to be working with researchers from the University of Manchester, including Professor Nigel Scrutton and Dr. Kirk Malone,” said Dr. Ben Harvey, a senior research chemist at the Navy lab in China Lake. “Patrick has been outstanding. He’s been a powerful advocate of our work and has connected us with both foreign and domestic opportunities that are allowing us to transition our work out of the laboratory and into the field.”
Harvey and his Navy colleagues have developed a method to convert linalool, a naturally occurring alcohol found in plants, into a high-performance missile fuel.
Harvey said that it can be expensive and complicated to produce certain molecules from conventional petroleum feedstocks using standard synthetic techniques and that this is where combining synthetic biology with chemical catalysis can have a disruptive impact.
“We’ve been looking for a partner to produce bio-based linalool for nearly a decade to demonstrate a process that starts with biomass sugars and ends with a high-performance missile fuel,” Harvey said. “Instead of a typical fermentation process in which a microorganism converts sugars to ethanol, we’re interested in leveraging the power of metabolically-engineered microorganisms to produce molecules for defense applications. The Manchester technology holds great potential for the economical production of large quantities of linalool. This innovation will make our chemical upgrading process feasible and enable transition of the technology.”
Rose and Harvey agree that a biosynthetic approach will not only be effective but also has the potential to be more economically viable in the long run.
Through the Navy’s process, linalool converts to cyclic alcohol and isobutylene. Chemical dehydration of the alcohol yields the building block for the high-density missile fuel, which is chemically indistinguishable from the petroleum-derived analog.
“There have been many proofs of concepts, but few success stories,” Rose said. “Ben’s work is one of the shining examples of how synthetic biology can be impactful. We are now reaching a point where, in the next couple of years, production on synthetic biology platforms will be competitive and scalable to industrial needs. We need to support great work, such as Ben’s effort, to accelerate the transition from the laboratory to field applications.”
As to why seawater is an ideal medium for conducting this process, Harvey stated that “unlike conventional synthetic biology that requires sterile conditions, shiny stainless steel reactors, and purified fresh water, the microorganism used by the Manchester researchers can tolerate high concentrations of salt and impurities.”
“This allows for fermentations to be conducted in seawater and may eventually allow for the production of fuels, lubricants, and chemicals at sea or at coastal Navy bases around the world,” Harvey said. “This approach reduces the demand on precious freshwater resources and dramatically decreases fermentation costs.”
Although this is their first time working with the University of Manchester researchers on this particular effort, Harvey says that the chemistry team has worked with some synthetic biology researchers at institutions including the Joint Bioenergy Institute, Evolva, Amyris, MIT, Zymergen and Duke University.
Additionally, the Navy team is currently working on a project with DARPA to demonstrate high-temperature composite materials made from biosynthetic materials.
“Synthetic biology has enormous potential for positively impacting our mission and warfighter capability,” Harvey said. “We currently have a project, funded through the Naval Innovative Science and Engineering 219 program, for the development of synthetic fuels with higher gravimetric heats of combustion and improved emissions compared to petroleum-derived jet fuels. We hope to use the biosynthetic linalool produced by the Manchester researchers as a feedstock for some of these fuel blends.
Also, because of the introduction through ONR Global, we are currently working with professor Scrutton on a joint proposal to utilize synthetic biology for the production of energetic precursors.”
The chemistry branch at the naval laboratory has been researching renewable jet fuels and high-density turbine fuels since 2007. Its effort has created a broad portfolio of patents, which can be licensed by businesses for product development through TechLink.
“The research team at China Lake has uncommonly 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 in finding businesses to license the patented technologies. “There’s an incredible business opportunity emerging with an international market.”
This story was reported by Stacie Lawrence of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.