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Ethanol-to-Jet Fuel Plant Opens in US

Bloomberg’s Kim Chipman reported Thursday that “the world’s first plant using ethanol to make lower-polluting jet fuel opened in the US, a development that Iowa corn growers and biofuel producers say is a wake-up call to move faster to decarbonize.”

The $200 million facility opened by LanzaJet Inc. is located in central, rural Georgia, according to Chipman, and “will produce 10 million gallons of SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) and renewable diesel per year.”

“The plant, which received US government funds, plans to use biofuel made from both traditional raw materials, including American-grown corn, as well as from advanced technologies, LanzaJet CEO Jimmy Samartzis said in an interview,” Chipman reported.

While the LanzaJet facility is new, its ethanol-to-jet fuel technology is not. AgWeb reports that the technology was “originally developed in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Lab in 2010, and its first commercial flights were completed in 2018 and 2019 with Virgin Atlantic and All Nippon Airways (ANA), respectively.”

AgWeb reported that “USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack gave remarks at the LanzaJet grand opening, stressing the opportunity ethanol-to-SAF production can create for American farmers. ‘This is a new industry that will use what you grow and convert it into something far more valuable,’ he said.”

SAF Market

The plant is a step toward President Joe Biden’s stated goal of production of “at least 3 billion gallons of overall SAF production annually by 2030” in the United States, Chipman reported.

That 3 billion gallon goal is part of the U.S. government’s broader goal of producing 35 billion gallons of SAF per year by 2050, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s SAF Grand Challenge.

“The SAF Grand Challenge and the increased production of SAF will play a critical role in a broader set of actions by the United States government and the private sector to reduce the aviation sector’s emissions in a manner consistent with the goal of net-zero emissions for the U.S. economy, and to put the aviation sector on a pathway to full decarbonization by 2050,” the DOE said.

Courtesy of the SAF Grand Challenge Roadmap

The aviation sector currently accounts for “roughly 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 12% of all transportation emissions,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Drew Kann reports.

Those emissions are because “nearly all of the fuel burned by airplanes crisscrossing the planet is derived from fossil fuels pulled from the ground,” Kann reported. “SAFs, on the other hand, can be made from corn, food and yard waste, woody biomass and even used cooking oils. If SAF is produced with corn farmed sustainably to store carbon in the soil or with other materials that would otherwise go to waste, they can reduce overall emissions compared to traditional jet fuels.”

Challenges for Midwest Farmers

While the opening of the plant is positive for the sustainable aviation fuel market, Chipman reported that “the opening prompted Iowa groups to warn that farmers and ethanol makers in the top US corn-producing state are at risk of missing out on the chance to significantly profit from the developing market for sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.”

That’s because “no Iowa ethanol plant currently has a carbon intensity score low enough to qualify as an ingredient to make SAF,” according to a statement from the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and Iowa Corn Promotion Board,” Chipman wrote. “By contrast, Brazil, which mainly makes ethanol from sugarcane, produces over 7 billion gallons of ethanol with a carbon score expected to qualify for SAF production, the groups said.”

Progressive Farmer’s Todd Neeley reported that “Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said during a press conference Wednesday that the only feasible way for Iowa ethanol producers and others across the country to lower carbon scores is through the wide adoption of carbon capture technologies. Standing in the way in recent months is public opposition to various carbon pipeline projects.”

Ryan Hanrahan is the farm policy news editor and social media director for the farmdoc project. He has previously worked in local news, primarily as an agriculture journalist in the American West. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri (B.S. Science & Agricultural Journalism).

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