SAFFiRE Renewables Plans to Use NREL DMR Technology to Help Turn Corn Stover Into Sustainable Aviation Fuel
06.19.2024 By Tank Terminals - NEWS

June 19, 2024 [Green Car Congress]- SAFFiRE Renewables LLC plans to break ground on its pilot plant to turn agriculture residue into a scalable biofuel business near Liberal, Kansas, in late 2024. In 2023, the company negotiated a license agreement for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL’s) deacetylation and mechanical refining (DMR) process, a technology seen as important for sidestepping challenges with cellulosic biofuel facilities in the past.


DMR uses a “gentle” alkaline bath and a mechanical shredder to prepare corn stover for ethanol fermentation. Ultimately, ethanol made at the plant, which will be operated by Conestoga Energy, can be upgraded into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) using LanzaJet’s alcohol-to-jet technology. Estimates suggest the resulting SAF will have a carbon footprint at least 83% lower than conventional jet fuel.

Initial funding for the plant was provided by the US Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), with a 50% match from Southwest Airlines. Southwest has the option of purchasing SAFFiRE’s cellulosic ethanol—and the subsequent SAF—to fuel its aircraft.

With a potential buyer in place, fuel credits available, and NREL’s DMR technology, SAFFiRE aims to take cellulosic ethanol to where it struggled to go in the past.

Old cellulosic biofuel technologies used highly specialized equipment that relied on acids, heat, and high pressures to remove impurities from the corn stover—such as acetate, lignin, and ash. While those processes were highly effective at breaking down the plant material, their extreme operating conditions created persistent headaches at industrial facilities. The acids corroded expensive equipment over time. Clogs formed as the shredded stover was fed into high-pressure reactors. Those issues made it difficult to scale facilities to process thousands of tons of biomass a day.

NREL’s DMR technology emerged to address these recognized challenges with cellulosic biofuel production. A research team responded by systematically reinventing biomass pretreatment with attention to past challenges.

The result is a technology that uses mechanical refiners already common in the paper industry—cutting capital costs. DMR relies on noncorrosive chemicals to lower toxicity. Perhaps most importantly, it uses nonpressurized tanks that work at low temperature and pressure, rather than high-pressure reactors, making it easy to rapidly feed large volumes of biomass. Small-scale studies suggest these advances can lower capital and operating expenses and increase the efficiency and ease of making sugars fermentable to ethanol.

SAFFiRE expects the pilot plant to handle 10 tons of corn stover every day, which could translate to an output of roughly 0.3 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol every year. Although that is a fraction of the nearly 100 million gallons produced annually from the much larger corn ethanol facility on site, SAFFiRE plans to use the pilot plant as the first in a series of progressively larger facilities.

For now, the plan for the pilot plant is to ship ethanol made in Liberal, Kansas, to a Georgia facility owned by LanzaJet, which uses a proprietary process to turn ethanol into SAF. In the future, that model might be replicated and scaled to respond to rapidly increasing demand for the renewable jet fuel—demand driven by state and federal biofuel incentives as well as SAF purchase agreements from large Us airlines, including Southwest.


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