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Forget Algae Biofuel, Navy Jets Could Run on Toothpicks

While some folks have been snickering at President Obama’s enthusiasm for algae biofuel and casting the stinkeye on the Department of Defense’s alternative fuels program, the U.S. Navy has been quietly working on procuring a new jet biofuel that could be made from practically any kind of woody biomass, including soft woods and forest waste. Earlier this week the Navy announced that it has issued a contract for the Albemarle Corporation to supply the fuel, made from a feedstock provided by the company Cobalt Technologies.

From forest to jet biofuel

Cobalt has developed a low cost, high efficiency fermentation based process that uses a natural strain of bacteria to break down the sugar in woody biomass and convert it directly to butanol, a form of alcohol. Initial runs of the process have involved bagasse, the waste from sugar cane or sorghum processing. It can also work on food waste and softer biomass. The end result, n-butanol, is a drop-in replacement for gasoline.

As for the expense, Cobalt claims that its process costs up to 60 percent less than conventional methods for producing butanol from petroleum precursors.

Scaling up biobutanol production

The Navy’s contract with Albemarle follows close on the heels of Cobalt’s announcement earlier this month that a demonstration run of its process exceeded the performance metrics that would be expected from commercial scale production, which puts Cobalt on track for its ambitious goal of launching the world’s first industrial scale cellulosic biobutanol plant.

A hand up for U.S. biofuel companies

Cobalt’s eventual success will have been aided by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The company has been testing and refining its process at NREL’s Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility at the National Bioenergy complex in Colorado.

As described by NREL’s Partnership Development team leader John Ashworth, federal resources like NREL will play a key role in new technological advances needed to make the biofuel industry competitive, just as they have played a role in developing fossil fuel and nuclear energy technologies:

“NREL is dedicated to advancing the cleantech industry and continually look for ways to further the intellectual capital and clean technology endeavors across the country. Our bioprocessing fermentation facilities can be used by non-DOE academic institutions and companies like Cobalt Technologies to conduct test trials, prove technology or even advance technology processes.”

Image: Some rights reserved by Steve A Johnson.
Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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