Lignin biojet project wins DARPA funding

By Erin Voegele | September 30, 2011

A researcher at Washington State University has been selected to receive a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Young Faculty Award to support the development of a technology to produce biobased jet fuel. Bin Yang, an assistant professor at WSU Tri-Cities’ Department of Biological Systems Engineering and the Center for Bioproducts & Bioenergy, has been awarded a two-year $300,000 grant to support his project, titled “Jet Fuel Production from Biomass-Derived Lignin in Remote Locations.”

According to Yang, the production technology he is developing will efficiently convert lignin into biobased jet fuel. Feedstock for the process could be accessed from several different sources, including the lignin byproduct that comes out of either cellulosic ethanol production or pulp and paper mills. "Co-production of ethanol and jet fuel from biomass sources would significantly improve the total carbon use in biomass and make biomass conversion more economically viable,” Yang said. In other words, the co-location of cellulosic biofuel production and lignin jet fuel production would create efficiencies that could drive down the cost of production.

Yang also noted that while DARPA doesn’t fund many biofuel projects, the production of alternative fuels is incredibly important to the U.S. Department of Defense. The DOD realizes that it is important, in terms of national security, for our nation to be able to produce alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel. The DOD’s interest in biofuel production is also good for the biorefining sector, as it should help expedite the ramp-up to commercial production.

"WSU has an impressive array of research and technologies that span feedstock development to conversion technologies for next generation aviation biofuels,” said Howard Grimes, vice president of research at WSU. "The recognition of Dr. Yang by DARPA is one more validation of the leadership role that WSU occupies in this important arena.”

A total of 407 applicants submitted proposals for this round of DARPA Young Faculty Award funding, with 39 applicants receiving awards. One other applicant received an award for lignin-based research. Penn State researcher Robert Rioux received a grant to support his project, titled “Lignin Depolymerization by Surface Organocatalysts in Ionic Liquids.”

This story first appeared in Biorefining Magazine.