A plan to make jet fuel and diesel from Oregon’s wood waste has attracted funding and strategic help from venture capital firm Flagship Ventures. Red Rock Biofuels plans to begin construction this summer on a $200 million Fischer-Tropsch facility in Lakewood, Ore., that will produce 12 million gal of fuel per year.
But efforts by other firms to make biofuels from wood have failed. Last year, KiOR filed for bankruptcy after it failed to continuously operate its catalytic cracking process in Columbus, Miss. And Range Fuels was unable to produce ethanol from wood chips at its facility in Soperton, Ga. The plant was sold at auction in 2012.
Red Rock was started by two former executives of Pacific Ethanol, a corn ethanol producer that operates four plants in the western U.S. Last September, Red Rock was chosen to receive a $70 million grant from the Departments of the Navy, Agriculture, and Energy for a facility to produce military-grade renewable fuel. Also that month it signed an agreement with Southwest Airlines to deliver 3 million gal of renewable jet fuel per year starting in 2016.
Red Rock cofounder Jeff Manternach says the company is taking no technological risks. “We build and operate facilities. We have no Ph.D.s and no lab coats,” he says. Indeed, Fischer-Tropsch technology was developed by Germany during World War II to make transportation fuels from biomass.
In Fischer-Tropsch reactors, a carbon-based feedstock is gasified at high temperature to yield carbon monoxide and hydrogen. This synthesis gas is then catalytically recombined to produce long-chain hydrocarbons.
Today, Fischer-Tropsch reactors are found in huge coal- and natural-gas-based plants but are not generally economical at the smaller scale appropriate for biomass. Red Rock’s solution is to use microchannel reactors made by the Battelle spin-off Velocys. The reactors’ high surface-area-to-volume ratios speed up reactions and decrease heat-transfer limitations, Velocys says.
Although Red Rock has momentum behind it, building a full-scale plant is fraught with risk, cautions Gerald Kutney, forestry biofuels expert at the consulting firm Lee Enterprises. “You can’t go from relatively small scale and then build a commercial plant from there,” he says. “Each stage comes with its own challenges.”