As much as we love electric planes here CleanTechnica, zero emission flight on any significant scale is still years. Therefore, aviation stakeholders are very interested in biofuels. Costs and supply chain problems are blocking the way, but a team of U.S. researchers in the Pacific Northwest has just found a new solution that could help the region’s paper industry reduce emissions.
Biofuel & Lignin, Lignin, Lignin
Lignin is a hard part of plants and makes them strong. It is also difficult to convert lignin into biofuels and other bio-based chemicals. However, the world is full of lignin, due to the process of producing a paper on which lignin is set aside for recycling or reuse. If left inside, it turns the final product yellow.
This is a problem because excess lignin is usually burned for fuel and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
More lignin may be on the market in the coming years as the wood products industry turns to new, high-tech formulas. For example, in 2018, a research team at the University of Maryland came up with the process of extracting lignin from balsam wood or other softwoods and compressing the remaining material.
The resulting material is stronger than steel and can be used to make cars, so maybe wooden plane parts will come back one day.
The Solution of the Lign Problem with Nature
An energy-intensive, chemical-based process is a traditional way to break down lignin. Researchers are looking for more efficient bio-based systems to do the same thing. The idea is similar to biogas separators, which have become commonplace in recent years. Digestives use the natural processes of microbes that chew soft biomass and produce gas.
Digesters, however, are designed for soft biomass such as livestock manure and municipal sewage sludge. Natural digestion is a relatively gentle process that does not work on lignin, so the challenge is to ensure that bio-based systems work under the harsh conditions needed to break down lignin.
This brings us to the latest lignin news from a team of researchers from Washington State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, part of the US Department of Energy’s National Laboratory Network.
The research team came up with a kind of biomimic solution to the problem. You can get all the juicy details in the magazine Nature Connectionsbut for those of you on the go, it’s an artificial robot-enzyme that mimics the natural process of lignin breakdown, only better, faster, more powerful, and longer.
The new enzyme is based on the naturally occurring enzymes of fungi and bacteria, and these enzymes are able to break down in the forest, lignin and elsewhere. The challenge is to force them to accelerate and operate efficiently in a man-made system that is impossible in their natural state.
“Chemists have been trying for more than a century to make valuable products from lignin and have failed. This disappointing record may be about to change, ”the lab said in a press release on May 31, noting that the new study is based on generations of previous work exposing much of the secret life of enzymes.
How does it work?
One of the key elements involved in the research team is a protein-like molecule called peptide, developed in the 1990s. Peptides are an engineered version of natural peptides present in the active sites of enzymes.
“In the current study, researchers have replaced peptides that contain the active site of natural enzymes with protein-like molecules called peptides. These peptides then self-assembled into nanoscale crystal tubes and layers, ”the lab explained.
Peptides are more stable and resistant than their peptide relatives. As a result, there may be more than just one active site for each enzyme. They can be organized and adjusted with great precision, and they can withstand temperatures up to 60 degrees Celsius.
“If the new bio-mimetic enzyme can be further improved to increase conversion productivity and create more selective products, it has the potential to expand to industrial scale. The technology offers new routes for aviation biofuels and renewable materials for biofuels, among other applications, ”the lab said.
So where is all aviation biofuel?
For those of you who keep points at home, two relevant authors of the study are PNNL affiliates and WSU associate professors Xiao Zhang and Chun-Long Chendir, Tengyue Jian, Wenchao Yang, Peng Mu, with additional contributions from Xin Zhang and Yicheng from PNNL. Zhou and Peipei Wang from WSU, through WSU-PNNL Bioproducts Institute.
Speaking of aviation biofuels, flying with fossil fuels has long been. Under the Obama administration, tobacco-based aviation fuel seemed ready for commercial development. Algae-based fuel was another innovation, and a “cocktail” of cornstarch and other ingredients was in the works.
The US Department of Energy recently published a list of promising SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) routes, so pay attention to these research projects (the list has been edited for brevity)
- SAF from wet waste: A carbon-negative fuel food waste, animal manure and other high-water wastes.
- Bio-based polycyclic alkane: Bio-acetone enhanced by ultraviolet light and catalysts made from a number of biomass resources, such as the corn kiln or bioenergy plants.
- SAF from carbon-rich waste gases: Waste carbon monoxide from industrial processes was captured and converted from ethanol to “alcohol-reactive” SAF along with bacteria.
The widespread commercial use of SAF is still a long time coming, but the speed is increasing and the corn kiln is still working (the corn kiln is made of wood stalks, husks and other debris left over from the product). Yesterday, Southwest Airlines became the latest aviation interested party to jump into the corn oven SAF bandwagon.
Southwest has invested in SAFFiRE Renewables under a D3MAX project in a project in partnership with the company’s Department of Energy.
“SAFFiRE is expected to use technology developed by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to convert the corn kiln, which is widely used in the United States, into renewable ethanol, which will then be upgraded to SAF,” Southwest explained.
Both of these companies are new CleanTechnica radar. A more familiar name emerges in the development of the project, which will be implemented by LanzaJet, the backbone of LanzaTech. Earlier this year, LanzaJet received $ 50 million from the Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund for the Freedom Pines Fuels plant in Soperton, Georgia, and if all goes according to plan, Southwest’s corn kiln will process ethanol. LanzaJet is also supported by the Department of Energy, so stay tuned to hear more about them.
“According to NREL, it can produce a significant amount of competitive SAF based on life cycle, which can provide an 84 percent reduction in carbon intensity compared to conventional jet fuel,” Southwest encourages.
Electric aircraft fans, do not despair. Southwest expects to replace up to 5% of its jet fuel with SAF by 2030, leaving much time to spare for future zero-emission aircraft – a fuel cell, a battery, or both.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Lign’s biofuel for sustainable aviation and paper industry waste reduction with permission from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
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