VFA Biorefinery Design for Informed Production of Ground and Aviation Fuels

Nabila Huq, Derek Vardon, Glenn Hafenstine, Hannah Nguyen, Xiangchen Huo, Stephen Tifft

Research output: NRELPresentation


The rising demand for low-carbon intensity fuel options requires evaluation of a system which can support their production economically and sustainably. Volatile fatty acids (VFAs) ranging from C2 to C8 can be derived in high yield from arrested anaerobic digestion of biomass. This talk provides an overview of our work in which we upgrade wet waste-derived VFAs using ketonization to elongate their carbon backbone to reach a range relevant to jet or diesel fuels. Kinetic models were used to predict ketone profiles from varying VFA profiles, thereby informing potential carbon flow to either (a) mixed paraffins for use in diesel or aviation fuel, or (b) ethers for use in diesel fuel. To do this, the anticipated products were screened for critical fuel characteristics using predictive tools. The criteria for neat and blended bioblendstocks were chosen based on conventional petrofuel requirements, and they were applied to inform fuel targets, identify limiting characteristics, and guide conversion development. While paraffins can serve as either diesel or aviation fuels, the latter has stringent criteria which include a precise distillation curve range tied to carbon distribution. Fuels which fall outside this range typically fail to meet other property metrics, and as such flashpoint and viscosity were identified as potentially limiting properties of this VFA aviation fuel. However, paraffin fractions which fall outside aviation criteria may meet diesel fuel requirements, which are looser except for the flashpoint minimum. Flashpoint was also a concern for smaller VFA diesel ethers, which posed an additional oxygenate risk of high water solubility. This fuel-informed conversion design process was demonstrated through production of paraffins with reduced sooting as compared to petrodiesel (~34%), and increased renewable aviation fuel blend levels (>70%). VFA-derived ethers improved petrodiesel by increasing fuel autoignition quality by 56% and reducing sooting by 86%. These VFA aviation and diesel fuels could enable greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions of over 165% and 50%, respectively, relative to their purely fossil-derived counterparts. Collectively, this work provides (i) an overview of how we leveraged the flexibility of VFAs for fuel production; and (ii) insight into the potential of a VFA biorefinery to accommodate varied feed and fuel applications, while also considering the merit of tailored fuel production pathways and GHG reduction potential.
Original languageAmerican English
Number of pages16
StatePublished - 2021

Publication series

NamePresented at the ACS Spring 2021 Virtual Meeting & Expo, 5-16 April 2021

NREL Publication Number

  • NREL/PR-5100-79697


  • aviation
  • biorefinery
  • diesel
  • SAF
  • VFA


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