GE, Darpa join on biofuel

 - October 31, 2007, 11:41 AM

General Electric’s research arm and the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (Darpa) have joined forces to develop an entirely bio-based jet fuel to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The main challenge is to make the conversion process efficient. The project envisions a conversion efficiency, by energy content, of crop oil to JP-8 surrogate of between 60 and 85 percent. The current focus is military, but commercial aviation might well reap some fruit eventually.

The program is called “Highly efficient bio oil conversion to jet fuel.” GE and Darpa plan initially to deliver some 100 liters (26 U.S. gallons) of fuel to the Department
of Defense for evaluation. The fuel is intended to meet military JP-8 specifications. The research partners will also address how to qualify and commercialize such a fuel.

According to a spokesman for GE Global Research, the $3 million program will last two years. “We really want to understand the characteristics of the fuel–how it is made and what the economics are,” he told AIN. Other research team members include Peter Cremer North America and Petrotech. The former is said to have extensive biodiesel commercialization experience, while the latter claims to be an expert in hydroprocessing.

GE and Darpa want to integrate “two mature technologies”–gasification and hydroprocessing. Gasification produces synthetic gas from feedstock, and hydroprocessing converts the gas into liquid fuel.

The product has low levels of sulfur and aromatic hydrocarbons, so its emissions are less polluting. However, aromatics serve to lubricate, so researchers must find additives to achieve the specified lubricity.

Under the joint research program, the minimum conversion efficiency, by energy content, of crop oil to JP-8 surrogate should be 60 percent. However, GE and Darpa are talking about “process optimization to achieve circa 85 percent.” For example, researchers will look for optimized catalysts to improve reaction yield.

GE and Darpa expect the biofuel to be affordable and its processing to require no external energy source. According to the defense agency, the conversion process should be compatible with oils from a broad range of crops. These might include new crop stocks selected specifically for their oil harvest.