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Northern process returns viable jet fuel - and coconut oil

The new process in producing aviation fuel for which Montana State University-Northern has a patent pending is several years in the making, and is closely related to work the university has done researching the production of biodiesel from locally grown crops.

A main focus at the Bio-Energy Center at Northern, which has been operating about five years, has been to find ways to produce fuels from oilseeds, eliminate deficiencies and problems in the fuels, and make the process profitable.

That can be difficult in an arena where the alternative fuel has to compete against the volatile prices in the fuel market, while dealing with the volatility of the agricultural market. The margins often are very thin, Northern College of Technical Sciences Dean Greg Kegel said.

The process Northern is patenting starts with camelina seeds, from a plant that grows well locally and could become a productive alternative crop, if a solid market can be found.

Kegel said the oilseed grows well on marginal land — and it also works well as a rotation crop, helping replenish nutrients in soil where wheat is grown — and could be a motivation to take marginal land out of programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and get it back into production.

Crushing the seed produces camelina oil, which the maker could use for whatever was desired. Kegel said it could be used for cooking oil — or it could be made into biodiesel.

Kegel said the Northern team developed a process that produced two coproducts — after taking camelina oil and running it through the process, they were left with jet fuel and another oil.

But that jet fuel still lacked aromatic hydrocarbons.

Then the Northern research team discovered something new. By converting the omega 3 fatty acids in camelina oil to jet fuel containing aromatics, they are able to produce a truly bio-derived drop-in fuel unlike other biofuels previously developed

Tests show the product exceeds aromatic requirements for aviation fuel, he added.

And that leaves the other coproduct: an oil with a chemical composition comparative to coconut oil, one of the highest-priced feed stocks in the oleochemical industry which utilizes chemicals derived from animal and plant fats.

Kegel said he was talking to a representative of Boeing — the airline manufacturer is interested in sponsoring research at Northern to study the economic viability of producing jet fuel from camelina, he added — who asked why only a fraction of the oil ends up as aviation fuel.

"The other half is more valuable than your jet fuel, " Kegel said he told the representative.

And the process Northern developed is a low-temperature process, which uses comparatively little energy. The other techniques being used and researched are high-energy, which increases the cost of production.

Kegel said the lower-cost, low-temperature process, along with the facts that the aromatics are in the fuel and that the coproduct is worth more than the jet fuel itself, changes the financial picture for camelina-derived aviation fuels.

"The thin margins are not so thin, " he said.

Navy Energy Strategy

The Navy's energy strategy is centered on energy security, energy efficiency and sustainability while remaining the pre-eminent maritime power.

Energy security is critical to mission success. Energy security safeguards our energy infrastructure and shields the Navy from a volatile energy supply.

Energy efficiency increases mission effectiveness. Efficiency improvements minimize operational risks, while saving time, money and lives.

Sustainable efforts protect mission capabilities. Investment in environmentally responsible technologies, afloat and ashore, reduces green house gas emissions and lessens dependence on fossil fuels.



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