Ontario north to become hub for green jet fuel production

A Los Angeles-based company called Rentech Inc. announced today that it is building a biofuels plant four hours north of Sault St. Marie, Ontario, that will be dedicated to turning forest waste and “unmerchantable” tree species into renewable jet fuel and naphtha, which is a chemical feedstock for making all sorts of products. This is big news for an Ontario steel and forestry area that was hit hard by the economic downturn. The plant, called the Olympiad Project, is expected to be operational in 2015 and will employ up to 1,000 people during peak construction. There will be about 83 direct full-time jobs once the plant is operational and over 300 indirect and “induced” positions — whatever that means.

Rentech’s approach is to gasify the biomass, condition the resulting synthesis gas (syngas), then convert it into jet fuel and naphtha using a Fischer-Tropsch process. The plant, called the Olympiad Project, is being designed to produce approximately 85 million litres (23
million gallons) annually of renewable and certified low-carbon jet fuel. Rentech will get its biomass from Ontario crown land through a deal with the province. In total, Rentech will have access to up to 1.1 million cubic metres (1.3 million U.S. tons) of Crown timber per year. The company has applied to receive up to $200 million in funding from Sustainable Development Technology Canada’s NextGen Biofuels Fund. That amount is expected to be paid back over time from project cash flow.

The ultimate impact of this fuel on the environment, according to Rentech, will be a reduction of 600,000 metric tonnes per year of CO2-equivalent emissions. “This equates to removing more than 100,000 passenger cars from the road,” the company says. The green jet fuel is “virtually” free of sulfur and aromatics. It has lower particulate matter, NOX and  SOX compared to conventional jet fuel (kerosene). The fuel is certified and was tested in 2010, though as a mix that contained 40 per cent conventional Jet-A fuel.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I’m a big supporter of developing biofuels specifically for aviation purposes and adopting an electrification strategy for light-duty vehicles. We can’t electrify commercial airliners or military jets, so greening up those fleets will require some sort of biofuel solution. The bonus is that distributing this green jet fuel to airports is much easier than delivering to the thousands and thousands of gas stations across North America. Rentech, for instance, could do a deal with CN rail, which delivers jet fuel directly to Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

I plan to chat with Rentech’s CEO this afternoon to get more detail about where the company plans to sell its green jet fuel and related products. Also, next Tuesday, there will be a panel on bio-jet fuel innovation at BIO World Congress in Toronto. I plan to attend and will report back.

3 thoughts on “Ontario north to become hub for green jet fuel production”

  1. Tyler – have any studies been completed on the impact of removing the forest waste? Wouldn’t the productivity of the forest soil decline over time – somewhat similiar to top soil loss that occurs on farms?

    On one hand – lumber has been harvested from the forest for a number of years and it continues to produce. However, is it possible that essentially leaving nothing behind (lumber or lumber waste) would make this an unsustainable practice?

    On a sidenote: Keep up the good work on the blog and Star articles!

  2. Hi Greg,

    There have been lifecycle studies done. You certainly have to approach it sustainably. I believe you can take a portion of the ground-based biomass without affecting soil nutrients. I’ve seen some studies that say you can take up to 70 per cent. With regard to unmerchantable species, I imagine the haul would be no different than merchantable species. What I’m curious about is how this stuff is harvested. I mean, it’s really spread out, and collecting this low-density “waste” requires transportation, meaning fuel. So it comes down to the energy returned on energy invested, and that’s a question I hope to ask Rentech’s CEO in about 20 minutes.

    Cheers.

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