Red Rock’s Jet Fuel From Wood Gets Lift | March 23, 2015 Issue - Vol. 93 Issue 12 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 93 Issue 12 | p. 8 | News of The Week
Issue Date: March 23, 2015 | Web Date: March 20, 2015

Red Rock’s Jet Fuel From Wood Gets Lift

Biofuels: Startup company hopes to succeed where others have failed
Department: Business | Collection: Sustainability
Keywords: advanced biofuels, biobased jet fuel
Red Rock plans to use Velocys microreactors for its biomass-to-fuels plant.
Credit: Velocys
Micro channels in the Velocys Fischer-Tropsch reactor.
Red Rock plans to use Velocys microreactors for its biomass-to-fuels plant.
Credit: Velocys

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.”

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Enviro-Equipment, Inc. (March 23, 2015 2:59 PM)
I wish the article had got into a bit more detail as to why Red Rock Biofuels thinks that their attempt at creating biofuel from wood waste will work when other companies have failed to do so. Do they have a new technique or reactor system that will make the production of biofuel economically sound or will they end up wasting the US government's $70 million.
R. Lee Shearer (March 23, 2015 3:25 PM)
You mean the taxpayer's $70 million, but point well taken. In any case, Mr. Manternach seems to be greatly confident. His company needs neither a Ph.D. nor even a lab coat. I would suggest, however, that he at least consult a B.S. chemist to explain to him the differences between coal and biomass.
Nathan (March 24, 2015 10:14 AM)
Well Said Lee !! Bravo!!!
Jayson Mills (August 13, 2015 11:32 AM)
The technology is old and is not what you should be worried about. The Fischer-Tropsch process was the life line of the German War Machine in WWII. They created nearly all their fuel in this manner as oil was just beyond their reach. Yes, they used coal which will have less oxygen in its make-up inherently but this process still works with biomass. If you are concerned about this technology being implemented in the U.S. its the cost of producing the fuel that you should be worried about. If implemented correctly, coupled with a cheap or free source of carbon such as wood waste and the stars align with high oil prices then I don't see a reason why this technology could not compete. At the moment with oil on the rocks, its a different story but I think they should try. I do feel they would benefit from having a small R&D team to attempt to identify opportunities.
Melody Bomgardner (August 17, 2015 5:47 PM)
Thanks for your comments - it is difficult from the outside to know for sure how well-tested and proven this small-scale version of the classic FT process is. But as Jayson Mills points out, the real test will be in the cost of production of the biomass fuel. Also Red Rock needs to raise the funds to cover the cost of the facility, its commissioning and its operations - this is not a small task on its own.

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