On June 6, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced that it is partnering with Cobalt Technologies, Show Me Energy Cooperative, and the U.S. Navy to demonstrate the production of jet fuel from switchgrass, a renewable biomass feedstock.

“This can be an important step in the efforts to continue to displace petroleum by using biomass resources,” NREL Manager for Bioprocess Integration R&D Dan Schell said. “We’re converting biomass into sugars for subsequent conversion to butanol and then to JP5 jet fuel.”

The project is one of four biorefinery projects funded recently by the U.S. DOE as part of the administration’s efforts to support renewable biofuels as a domestic alternative to power military and civilian aircraft and vehicles.

Each partner will play a distinct role in the collaborative effort. Show Me Energy Cooperative, a biomass aggregation and processing facility in Centerview, Missouri, will provide the switchgrass feedstock for the project.

NREL will then process the switchgrass feedstock into fermentable sugars, using their pretreatment reactor and enzymatic digester reactors. The laboratory has the equipment to convert biomass to fermentable sugars at a scale of one dry ton per day, using enzyme formulas and a dilute acid catalyzed pretreatment developed by Cobalt Technologies.

Next, the fermentable sugars will be converted into butanol, using NREL’s 9,000-liter fermentors and Cobalt Technologies’ proprietary microorganisms and fermentation process.

“At NREL, we can take biomass feedstock, convert it to biofuels and scale it up in our pilot plant, in this case converting it to butanol,” NREL Senior Project Leader for Partnership Development Rich Bolin said. “The (test) runs we did last year with Cobalt Technologies producing butanol at our pilot plant were quite successful.”

Finally, the U.S. Navy and Cobalt Technologies will convert the butanol to jet fuel at the NREL’s biorefinery pilot plant. The process will use the Navy’s unique catalyst systems.


Cobalt Technologies, NREL, Show Me Energy Cooperative, and the U.S. Navy are collaborating to produce jet fuel from switchgrass, pictured above.

The goal is to show that the Cobalt-Navy bio-jet fuel can be a cost competitive alternative that meets military specifications while using non-food based biomass as a feedstock, and reduce the Department of Defense’s dependence on petroleum-based products.

The results of testing will help determine whether the process is ready for commercial scale use. If so, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Defense are poised to help private firms build the huge biorefineries that would be needed, Schell said.

The process is expected to result in a 95% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to the current production of jet fuel.

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