Cracking the Code

TG fractured green
It took almost eight years, but researchers from the University of North Dakota’s College of Engineering and Mines (CEM) and the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) have been granted a U.S. patent for a process that creates renewable jet fuel from crop oils, among other sources.

The new U.S. patent, titled “Method for Cold Stable Biojet Fuel” (U.S. Patent 9206367), was issued on Dec. 8. The inventors are Wayne Seames, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, and Ted Aulich, EERC principal process chemist for fuels and chemicals.

“This was the first of five patent applications UND submitted related to the production of transportation fuels and commodity chemicals based on a technique known as cracking, and the fourth one that’s been approved,” Seames said.

For these patents, the cracking technique is applied to one or more feedstocks from a class of oils known as triacylglyceride (TG) oils. TG oils include crop oils, oils from algae and oils from some bacteria. The cracking process uses high temperatures and an oxygen-free environment to decompose the large, complex TG molecules into smaller molecules that are more useful for the production of fuels and chemicals, according to Seames.

Crop oils can be edible like soybean or canola oil, or inedible like camelina.

The UND researchers have demonstrated that a range of product material from the cracking reactor can be processed into a renewable fuel that meets all of the American Society for Testing and Materials and military specifications for petroleum jet fuel, including a freeze-point specification of 47 degrees below zero Celsius.


Green chemicals

010104 Brian Tande
Brain Tande
Wayne Seames
Wayne Seames

In a more recent related development, UND secured a U.S. patent to produce benzene, toluene and xylenes, the so-called “BTX” aromatic compounds out of the same kind of renewable materials used for the jet biofuel.  The named inventors for this technology are Seames and Brian Tande, a fellow UND professor and chair of the University’s Chemical Engineering Department.

“BTX compounds are the starting materials for many polymers, resins and elastomers on the market,” Tande said. “The most common method for the production of BTX is the catalytic reforming of propylene and/or propane, which is typically produced from crude oil.”

Because UND’s new technology allows these critical chemicals to be produced from renewable feedstocks, it increases the green content of the final products and reduces the overall carbon footprint for production, Seames said.

The U.S. Patent Office approved the patent, No. 9,273,252, “Production of Aromatics from Noncatalytically Cracked Fatty Acid Based Oils,” on March 1.

Seames said production of these more environment-friendly chemicals involves the same cracking process used to produce renewable jet fuel and can be made with the same crop oils or other feedstocks.  In fact, both inventions can be combined together to increase the diversity and economic potential of TG oil cracking.

When combined with UND’s previous patents in this area, a robust biorefinery can be constructed that produces a wide variety of green fuel, chemical and material products.

The initial concepts for each of these patented ideas were developed under grants from federal sources.  Once the concepts were shown to be viable, the technology was developed to a commercially usable status as part of the SUNRISE BioProducts Center of Excellence (COE), which was funded by the North Dakota Department of Commerce.

The SUNRISE BioProducts COE is the applied research and development arm of the Sustainable Energy Research Initiative and Supporting Education, or SUNRISE, supercluster program.  While administered out of UND, SUNRISE is a multi-university, multi-disciplinary research center with investigators from UND, North Dakota State University and others.

The patent application development and approval process for both of these inventions fell under the direction of Michael Moore, associate vice president for intellectual property commercialization and economic development at UND.

The University is actively seeking to license this suite of technologies for rapid and widespread commercialization.

By David Dodds

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