Simulation and Optimization of Volatile Fatty Acid Upgrading Strategies for Sustainable Transportation Fuel Production

Jacob Miller, Stephen Tifft, Matthew Wiatrowski, Pahola Benevides, Nabila Huq, Earl Christensen, Teresa Alleman, Cameron Hays, Jon Luecke, Colin Kneucker, Stefan Haugen, Violeta Sanchez i Nogue, Eric Karp, Troy Hawkins, Avantika Singh, Derek Vardon

Research output: NRELPoster


Underutilized wet waste is a promising feedstock for production of carbon-neutral or carbon-negative liquid transportation fuels. Arrested methanogenesis of wet wastes by microbes, which produces mixtures of C2-C8 carboxylic acids (volatile fatty acids, VFAs), is practiced industrially at a pilot scale and the VFA products can be catalytically upgraded to molecules suitable for use as transportation fuels (alcohols and alkanes) via sequential ketonization and hydrogenation, both steps of which have been demonstrated with high (>90%) yield at the lab scale. We present in this work a simulation-based decision-making framework which evaluates upgrading strategies of VFAs to alcohol- and hydrocarbon-based neat and blended diesel, jet, and gasoline fuels. The processes utilize sequential upgrading steps (ketonization and hydrogenation) accompanied by one distillation step (either separating VFAs before ketonization or alcohols after ketone hydrogenation) to form two liquid streams: a light alcohol stream best suited as a light-duty fuel and a heavy alcohol or hydrocarbon stream best suited as a diesel or jet fuel. Suitability of the liquid products as transportation fuels and maximum blending levels with petrofuels comes from simulation of critical fuel properties (boiling point, flash point, lower heating value, viscosity, melting point, water solubility, and cetane/octane number). Catalytic upgrading steps and fuel property mixing models used by the simulation are experimentally validated. We demonstrate the flexibility of the decision-making algorithm by evaluating processing scenarios for experimentally-observed VFA profiles with varied carbon chain length distributions. Processing scenarios are optimized for either maximum total renewable carbon utilization or production of heavy-duty (jet or diesel) fuels. We evaluate the economic viability and CO2 emissions of each proposed upgrading scenario using techno-economic and life cycle analyses. The decision-making framework developed in this work can also be used to down-select promising strategies for upgrading of other bio-based feedstocks to sustainable fuels and chemicals.
Original languageAmerican English
StatePublished - 2022

Publication series

NamePresented at the International Conference on Thermochemical Conversion Science: Biomass & Municipal Solid Waste to RNG, Biofuels & Chemicals, 18-21 April 2022, Denver, Colorado

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PO-5100-82448


  • aviation fuel
  • biomass
  • catalysis
  • diesel
  • gasoline
  • modeling
  • optimization
  • upgrading
  • wet waste


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