Coal + Biofuel = Alternative Jet Fuel?

jet1.jpgA Princeton professor is proposing that coal be combined with biomass to create what’s called synfuels — high-performance, low-emission jet fuel. Combined with a carbon capture and sequestration system, the process could produce “near-zero greenhouse gas emissions.” The announcement came as Richard Branson told a conference that Virgin would be test-flying jets with biofuels in them.

Fred Dryer, a professor or mechanical and aerospace engineering, has some big-time backing for his research efforts. With $7.5 million from the Air Force, he’ll be creating models to predict how new fuels will behave and what they’ll emit in jet engines. NetJets, a Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) subsidiary that sells timeshares for private jets, is funding Dryer’s synfuels research. Dryer believes that combining coal with biofuel is a good alternative to traditional biofuel efforts because it requires only half the biomass of pure biofuel, reducing the environmental and food supply impacts of biomass crop production.

Other research teams have also shown progress towards more sustainable jet fuel alternatives. Last fall, a team of University of North Dakota researchers talked up a high-performing biojet fuel. Then, back in February, Diversified Energy and NC State made a similar claim.

Cars are the main targets of greenhouse gas reduction, but planes produce 10 percent of emissions in the U.S. transportation system. Still, the area has received relatively little investor interest. Amyris has mentioned jet fuel, although gas for cars remains their focus in the near term. Kerosene, which is what powers jets, is tough to make out of biological material. And there hasn’t been a market for the fuels — although the Virgin announcement could be a sign that conditions are improving.

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