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Jet BioFuel About to Take Off

Biodiesel and ethanol seem to be bogged down right now, but jet fuel from soybeans may be getting ready to take off.


Sunrise Renewables, a University of North Dakota company trying to commercialize alternative energy research, will have a 350,000 gallon capacity jet biofuel pilot plant up and running this fall. Commercial production could come in two to five years, says Wayne Seames, a UND professor of chemical engineering heading up the project.


Seames, who has worked in the oil refining business, sounds convincing.


Ethanol and biodiesel face some stiff challenges, he says.


One, they are not “drop-in” fuels. They can’t be exactly substituted for gasoline and diesel fuel in all situations. Jet biofuel is. It meets all the specifics for the fuel it replaces.


Two, ethanol and biodiesel disrupt traditional oil refinery production and margins. Refiners make gasoline, diesel and kerosene from crude oil. They add chemicals to kerosene to make jet fuel. Alter demand for one of the fuels and refiners have to cut overall supply, or change their margins on other products to make up the difference. That is why diesel fuel costs more than gasoline now, he says.


The solution is to make renewable fuel replacements for all three key products, Seames says.


I asked Seames if renewable jet fuel will face the same food-versus-fuel controversy as ethanol. He said, unfortunately it probably would -- though UND is looking at making jet biofuel out of non-food crop oils, too.


The cynic in me bets that jet biofuel will get a pass. Behind some of the furor over using corn to make ethanol are critics who don’t think people should drive SUVs in the first place. But they probably are frequent flyers. They’ll think jet biofuel is just fine.


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