Albemarle lands Navy alcohol-to-jet contract using Cobalt butanol

By Bryan Sims | March 22, 2012

The Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division in China Lake, Calif., has awarded a manufacturing contract to global specialty chemical firm and catalyst supplier Albemarle Corp. to complete its first biojet fuel production run based on biobased n-butanol provided by Mountain View, Calif.-based Cobalt Technologies. For this production run, Albemarle will utilize NAWCWD alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) fuel technology to convert Cobalt’s biobased n-butanol into biojet fuel at its Baton Rouge, La., processing facility.

Funded by the NAWCWD, the initial manufacturing contract by Albemarle officially launched in February. Upon completion, the resulting jet fuel will be tested by the U.S. Naval Air Warfare Center-Aircraft Division as a continuing process for military certification through the Department of Defense. Once this testing is completed, large production runs are expected to be undertaken to continue with flight testing.

According to Andrew Meyer, senior vice president of business development for Cobalt, the relationship with Albemarle underpins two main objectives set out by the firm.

“First, it basically helps us scale up and derisk the catalyst,” he explained. “The second thing this relationship really does for us is that it allows us an avenue and platform to actually generate quantities of fuel required for certification, both military and commercial.”

Specifically, Cobalt converts lignocellulosic feedstock, such as woody biomass, into biobased n-butanol for both chemical and fuel applications, including biojet fuel. The combined science team of Cobalt and the NAWCWD focused on scaling and optimizing the dehydration chemistry for the conversion of biobased n-butanol to 1-butene via a dehydration step followed by oligomerization of the biobutene into biojet fuel based on a specific process developed at NAWCWD in China Lake. Once the team completed its initial research, the search for a large-scale processing partner began, which resulted in the awarding of the manufacturing contract to Albemarle.

The fact that NAWCWD’s ATJ technology is capable of converting n-butanol into other high-value platform chemicals like 1-butene is important, according to Meyer, because it demonstrates that the collaboration with Albemarle extends beyond exclusively jet fuel production to exploit other chemical derivatives of n-butanol. For example, he added, the process allows Cobalt to produce butadiene using the 1-butene pathway from n-butanol as the starting point.  Butadiene is a valuable industrial chemical that’s typically used as a monomer in the production of synthetic rubber.

“This is much bigger than just jet fuel,” Meyer said. “Obviously, the Navy is very focused on the jet fuel aspect of things, but this technology actually offers Cobalt a very nice stepping stone into a much broader market access in terms of chemical derivatives and fuels that will exceed $500 billion.”

This initial production run is the first significant milestone under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement that was signed between NAWCWD and Cobalt in 2010 to develop technology for the conversion of biobased n-butanol into jet and diesel fuels.

The development of cost effective and sustainable sources of fuel for military use is a high priority for the U.S. Navy, which aims to cut the use of foreign-based fossil fuels in half by 2020. This summer, the Navy is planning on using the recent purchase of 450,000 gallons of biofuel for the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) maritime exercise as part of the Great Green Fleet demonstration, a carrier strike group composed of nuclear ships, hybrid electric ships running biofuels, and aircraft flying on biofuels.

Additionally, by 2016, the Great Green Fleet will be fully deployed using 50/50 blends of biofuels for ships and aircraft.

While Meyer wasn’t at liberty to disclose what volume of biobased n-butanol Albemarle might using at NAWCWD’s China Lake facility for jet fuel production, he emphasized that Cobalt’s ongoing relationship with Albermarle reinforces the company’s commitment to participate and become a meaningful contributor in the future ATJ biojet fuel market.

Currently, two pathways exist within specifications under ASTM for qualifying biojet fuels: Fischer-Tropsch (approved in 2009) and the Hydroprossessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA), which was approved last year. The ATJ pathway for jet fuel production has yet to be certified and approved by ASTM. Meyer said Cobalt is active in various committees such as the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative and ASTM to assist with technical, economic and analytic resources.

“We’ve got a very legitimate fuel,” Meyer said. “It’s the next wave of biojet as part of being the ATJ consortium. We’re very excited to play in this space and we’re here for the long run.”

(This article first appeared at Biorefining Magazine.)