August 9, 2007

Sandia partners with UOP to develop biofuel for military jets

Project focuses on demonstrating efficient conversion of vegetable and algae oils to Jet Propellant-8, and assessing feasibility for oil feedstock and fuel production scale-up

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. and Livermore, Calif., are part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -funded team led by UOP, LLC, a Honeywell company, looking at the production of military Jet Propellant 8 (JP-8) fuel based on the use of renewable biomass oil crop feedstocks, including microalgae.

The goal of the 18-month effort, which is backed by a $6.7 million project award from DARPA, is to develop and commercialize a process to produce the Jet Propellant 8 (JP-8) fuel used by U. S. and NATO militaries.

Sandia researchers will collaborate closely with team members at UOP, Cargill and Arizona State University to evaluate technical, economic and environmental interdependencies, conduct comparative life cycle analyses and tradeoff assessments and assess the scale-up feasibility of high-volume bio-oil feedstock and JP-8 fuel production from oil-rich microalgae and other suitable oil crops.

Sandia will specifically address issues and options for the necessary expansion of reliable and cost-competitive oil crop production and oil feedstock processing. This will include evaluation of promising oil crops that will not directly compete with food and feed markets, can avoid the use of higher-quality agricultural land, and may also allow for reduced demand for energy, fresh water and other inputs.

Several key issues and interdependencies for oil feedstock and biofuel production scale-up include land use, water demand and availability, soil and climate conditions, energy and other critical inputs, crop yields and reliability, cost of production, competing markets, operational logistics and infrastructure and the desire to avoid or minimize potential adverse environmental impacts.

“National scale-up of oil-crop-based aviation fuel production at the volumes, supply availability, reliability and competitive costs desired is a complex and dynamic ‘system of systems’ challenge,” says Ron Pate, Sandia researcher. “We will leverage Sandia’s capabilities and expertise in systems dynamics modeling, simulation and assessment to help provide insight and decision support to the team and DARPA.”

Sandia will also assess the technical and economic viability of algal oil feedstock production systems and processes, which will include close collaboration with Arizona State University. The goal of this effort will be to provide an objective evaluation of the performance, costs, and feasibility of scale-up of algal biomass and oil feedstock production systems using selected alga strains and approaches that may offer promising pathways toward reliable and competitively priced production of algal oil suitable for conversion into jet fuel. While algal oil is similar to other vegetable oils in terms of fatty acid composition, the oil productivity of microalgae, on an annual per-acre basis, could potentially provide 100 times greater yield than soy and 10 times greater yield than oil palm.

“Achieving commercially viable algal-oil production scale-up faces numerous challenges,” says Pate. “But we hope to more clearly identify and assess opportunities and paths for providing significant performance improvements and cost reductions.”

Sandia, UOP, Honeywell Aerospace, Cargill, Southwest Research Institute and ASU researchers will be working to help develop, evaluate and commercialize the processes and biofeedstock and biofuel production scale-up pathways needed to enable reliable, high-volume, competitively priced jet fuel production based on vegetable and/or algae oil rather than petroleum.

“The focus of our renewable energy efforts has been to develop technologies that align with today’s standard refinery practices, but allow a broader range of feedstock options,” says Jennifer Holmgren, director of UOP’s Renewable Energy and Chemicals business unit. “We are confident that we have assembled a strong team of experts that will be successful in proving the viability of biofeedstock technologies for JP-8 and other jet fuels, while offering the U.S. military another option for sustainable liquid fuels critical to their programs.”

Fuel produced by the new process will have to meet stringent military specifications and is expected to achieve 90 percent energy efficiency for maximum conversion of feed to fuel to reduce waste and production costs. UOP expects the technology will be viable for future use in the production of fuel for commercial jets.

The project is expected to be completed by the end of 2008.

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DARPA is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense (DoD). It manages and directs selected research and development projects for DoD for the advancement of military roles and missions.

Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Michael Padilla,, (505) 284-5325