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Institute for Integrated Catalysis

For the First Time, Recycled Waste Gas Powers Commercial Aviation Flight

Virgin Atlantic 747
A Virgin Atlantic 747 was the first commercial flight to fly with recycled waste gas. Chicago-based LanzaTech first converted the gas to ethanol and then, using technology developed by PNNL, upgraded the ethanol to fuel approved for commercial aviation.

High above the Atlantic Ocean in October, a Boeing 747 recently made catalysis history.

A Virgin Atlantic Airlines' flight from Orlando, Florida to London helped usher in a new era for low-carbon aviation that has been years in the making. The long-term vision was the culmination of leading-edge work by a collaboration of researchers in chemistry, biotechnology, engineering, and catalysis.

When wheels touched down at Gatwick Airport on October 3, scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's (PNNL) Institute for Integrated Catalysis and their industrial partners at LanzaTech had demonstrated how carbon could be recycled and used for commercial flight. "This fuel exceeds the properties of petroleum-based jet fuel in terms of energy content and burns much cleaner," said PNNL's John Holladay, who spearheaded the project and is Co-Director of The Washington State University-PNNL Bioproducts Institute.

"By recycling carbon already in the environment—in this case, waste gas streams—it lets the world keep more petroleum sequestered in the ground," Holladay explained. "The technology not only provides a viable source of sustainable jet fuel but also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere."

Chicago-based LanzaTech developed its unique carbon recycling technology that operates similarly to traditional fermentation. However, instead of using sugars and yeast to make alcohol, and gases rich in carbon monoxide, such as those found at industrial manufacturing sites, are converted by bacteria to fuels and chemicals, such as ethanol. Ethanol is used for a range of low carbon products, including alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK) which is now eligible to be used in commercial flights at up to 50 percent blends with conventional jet fuel.

LanzaTech turned to the catalytic expertise of PNNL and the Institute for Integrated Catalysis, where scientists developed a unique catalytic process and a proprietary catalyst to upgrade the ethanol to ATJ-SPK. The catalyst removes oxygen from the ethanol in the form of water and then combines the remaining hydrocarbon molecules to form chains large enough for jet fuel without forming aromatics that lead to soot when burned.

Read more about the flight path to sustainable jet fuel.

LanzaTech then scaled up the technology. The ethanol was converted to 4,000 gallons of ATJ-SPK at LanzaTech's Freedom Pines facility in Georgia and met all the specifications required for use in commercial aviation. In April 2018, an international standards body approved the ethanol-to-jet fuel pathway for aviation turbine fuel at up to a 50 percent blend ratio with standard, petroleum-based jet fuel based on LanzaTech's detailed Research Report which evaluated and summarized 2500 tests on more than 100 fuel properties.

DOE's Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) was also instrumental in supporting technology development. With co-funding from BETO, LanzaTech is now preparing a design and engineering package for an ATJ production facility implementing the LanzaTech-PNNL ethanol based ATJ-SPK pathway. LanzaTech's Freedom Pines site is the location of a planned facility which would be able to convert sustainable ethanol to millions of gallons per year of low carbon jet and diesel fuels.

"Thanks to collaborative efforts of our friends, partners, and governments across both sides of the Atlantic, we are showing the world that carbon capture and utilization is ready today," said Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech chief executive officer. "Many people thought recycling waste carbon emissions into jet fuel wasn't possible. We have shown that waste carbon is an opportunity, not a liability and that carbon can be reused to provide sustainable benefits for all. Together we can create the carbon future we need."

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