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

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

Research output: NRELPresentation


The multicomponent nature of and variability of biomass makes chemical upgrading via a single process stream to a single end use infeasible for most feedstocks. A more promising approach is to identify upgrading strategies (encompassing bioprocessing, catalysis, and separations) which valorize varied biomass fractions to distinct products to which each is best suited. A robust procedure to carry out this goal should incorporate comparison of various upgrading procedures as well as suitability of products to a slate of identified end uses. We applied this strategy to one biomass-derived feedstock, volatile fatty acids (VFAs) derived from wet waste arrested anaerobic digestion, by developing a computer program, VFA Upgrading to Liquid Transportation fUels Refinery Estimation (VULTURE) which evaluates VFA catalytic upgrading to liquid transportation fuels. VULTURE considers multiple separations, catalysis (ketonization, hydrogenation), and fuel application options, generating hundreds of candidate scenarios for a given VFA stream, then selects several promising strategies that optimize bio-content of products with properties best suited for target fuel types. We find that VFAs are upgraded most efficiently when separate light alcohol (C3-6) and heavy hydrocarbon or alcohol (C7-13) fractions are targeted to create gasoline and heavy-duty (diesel or jet) fuels or fuel blends. Surrogate property testing of VULTURE-recommended fuels reveals that most predictive models employed are robust, while rigorous process simulation shows that the simple unit operation assumptions used in VULTURE are largely accurate, especially for heavy-duty fuel synthesis. Techno-economic and life-cycle analyses show that VFA-derived fuels are profitable and have dramatically (=57%) lower carbon intensities than fossil analogs.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages24
StatePublished - 2022

Publication series

NamePresented at the AICHE 2022 Annual Meeting, 13-18 November 2022, Phoenix, Arizona

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-5100-84538


  • liquid transportation fuels
  • optimization
  • sustainable aviation fuel
  • sustainable diesel


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