A Georgia plant turning wood residue into jet fuel is receiving a big chunk of new federal funding to boost production, in the hopes that its products can eventually lower the climate change impact of the airline industry and other sectors.
The Department of Energy announced that it is awarding an $80 million grant to AVAPCO LLC, a biofuel, biochemical and biomaterials company that currently operates a refinery in Thomaston, about 60 miles west of Macon. The agency released $118 million to fund 17 projects around the country on Thursday, with AVAPCO’s grant by far the largest.
All of the projects receiving funding are working to advance U.S.-based production of biofuels — liquid fuels that can be made from plants, animal waste, used cooking oil and more. In a news release announcing the grants, U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm cited the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from a host of industries and build domestic energy independence in the process.
“Biofuels are a versatile tool because they have the immediate potential to power our ships, trains, airlines and heavy-duty vehicles — a huge contributor to total carbon emissions — with a significantly reduced carbon footprint,” Granholm said.
AVAPCO, in business since 2009, is now a subsidiary of GranBio, a Brazilian biotechnology firm.
In 2016, the company received a $4.7 million DOE grant for a phase 1 pilot demonstrating its method for converting woody residue from sawmills, paper and pulp plants into sustainable aviation fuel. The company’s process also produces nanocellulose, a fibrous material that can be used by rubber manufacturers to strengthen tires and other products.
Phase 1 of the company’s project was successful, the DOE said. Now, the new federal money will be used to fund construction of a larger plant capable of producing 1.2 million gallons of jet fuel annually, plus sustainable material for the rubber industry.
The new plant, likely to be located in Thomaston, is expected to be operational by 2026, said AVAPCO’s chief technology officer Kim Nelson.
Biofuels like ethanol have been used for years as an additive in gasoline, but interest in producing higher quality fuel for airplanes has grown in recent years. In 2018, a Virgin Atlantic aircraft flew from London to Orlando using a low-carbon jet fuel made at a different biofuels plant in rural southeast Georgia.
The fuels’ appeal stems both from their potential to reduce emissions and that they can be used with much of the economy’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
Biofuels produce greenhouse gas emissions when they are burned, but they can — in theory — be carbon neutral, because the plants they are derived from grow back and pull heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the process. However, exactly how much lower their emissions are depends on how they’re produced, how the fuel is distributed and other factors.
Nelson said she thinks biofuels hold great potential for widespread use in hard-to-decarbonize sectors like aviation.
“It’s going to be many decades before there are electric planes, but in the near term, significant reductions in the carbon footprint of aviation is possible with sustainable aviation fuels,” Nelson said
Since the mid-2000s, several Georgia companies have entered the biofuels space, but most have fizzled in the years since.
Nelson said she wouldn’t speculate why past efforts failed, but said she was confident AVAPCO could buck that trend because it has scaled up gradually.
“We have invested the time and the money to do it very conservatively, step-by-step,” Nelson said. “That’s really the significant difference.”
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