By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

Bin-YangRICHLAND, Wash. – Researchers at Washington State University Tri-Cities have been awarded a National Science Foundation I-Corps grant to explore the market potential of their biojet fuel research.

The team has successfully demonstrated a new, water-based process for deconstructing and recovering lignin from biomass and converting it into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons. These could be certified as jet fuel in the future.

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Bin Yang, center, and his research team at WSU Tri-Cities.

Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities associate professor of biological systems engineering and principal investigator for the grant, holds a patent on the process.

Lignin, a polymer that makes plants woody and rigid, is a waste product in the biofuels production process.

“Our ultimate goal is to demonstrate a flexible catalytic process that selectively converts all the carbon in the lignin into jet fuel-range hydrocarbons at minimal cost,” Yang said.

Airlines support fuel sustainability

Libing Zhang, WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate and entrepreneurial lead on the project, said commercial airlines are facing pressure to reduce emissions, which is why they may have an interest in seeing a lignin-derived alternative fuel brought to market.

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Libing Zhang in the WSU Tri-Cities lab.

Yang said his team has worked for several years on projects funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Transportation, Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation and Boeing Co.

“The airlines see alternative jet fuel as a strategic need, helping guarantee smooth business operations and a long-term and sustainable jet fuel supply,” Zhang said. “Our conversion process can potentially reduce jet fuel cost to end users by using lignin waste from refineries and less expensive catalytic upgrading to jet fuel.”

Collaboration on business, marketing

She said the NSF I-Corps program helps leading researchers develop a business platform for their research and technology by recreating processes and strategies that are already working well within the industry.

Yang and his team are working under the mentorship of Terri L. Butler from the University of Washington for the business aspects of the project.

“The NSF I-Corps program encourages researchers to step out of the academic environment and listen to the needs of industry,” Butler said. “The researchers can then determine if their technology solves an important problem or if their research efforts should head in a different direction.

“This is the approach our team has taken as we work on possible business models for our biojet fuel technology while considering the needs of customer segments, key partners, cost structures and revenue streams,” she said.

Commercializing research discoveries

WSU is leading the nation in biofuel production. In November, Alaska Airlines made the first commercial flight using alternative jet fuel from forest residuals produced through WSU-led Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance. Read more at http://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/biofuel-from-logging-scraps-powers-alaska-airlines-jet-on-cross-country-flight/.

WSU also has an NSF I-Corps site led by the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture that provides training and funding to find commercial applications of new business ideas and technologies. The free program promotes entrepreneurism of faculty, student and staff by preparing participants to submit proposals to NSF to become an I-Corps team. Learn more at https://vcea.wsu.edu/icorps/.

 

News media contacts:
Bin Yang, WSU Tri-Cities biological systems engineering, 509-372-7640, binyang@tricity.wsu.edu
Libing Zhang, WSU Tri-Cities postdoctoral research associate, libing.zhang@wsu.edu
Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations, 509-372-7333, maegan.murray@tricity.wsu.edu