The University of Washington is developing a fungi based aviation biofuel that might be competitive on the open market. Fungi naturally do many of the complicated chemical processes required by other fuels. This should mean that a fungi biofuel has lower production costs.
The next step is developing a strain that is more suitable for mass production. Dr Birgitte K. Ahring, Director and Battelle Distinguished Professor of the University’s Bioproduct Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, explained why fungi-based biofuels could eventually replace conventional jet fuels.
Dr. Birgitte K Ahring with Malavika Sinha, one of the students who worked with Aspergillus carbonarius in the lab.
“Our very preliminary cost estimate shows that if we get production in the right place, it will be comparable with production from fossil fuels,” she said.
Their story really starts in 2011, when Dr Ahring and her colleagues tested fungi to see if it produced hydrocarbon products.
“After the first study we saw that, it produces a blend that is pretty similar to what you have in a normal jet fuel,” she said. “We can lower the carbon footprint of aviation.”
The challenge is to make fungi do something it does not normally do. Fungi wants to grow, but Ahring and her colleagues want it to use this energy to produce more hydrocarbons.
Their research is presently being done in a university lab. When they find a strain “that is interesting enough to produce on a bigger scale,” they will move to a pilot plant on campus.
“In five years we hope to be in the place where this is ready to scale out. I think that in five years we be in a situation where we have all the proof of concept and the proof of technology. This means you can do the techno-economics and hopefully there will be investors interested in the product. Industry will take over and hopefully it will take off. It might go faster, it might take more time,” she said.
“The same thing that happened with antibiotics. After five years there was a tremendous increase in activity of the product.”
The complexities of jet fuel blends are such that the lab wants to move slowly, so there are no safety issues. “When you are up in the air, you don’t want to be in a situation where, you experience problems with the fuel composition.” The first product will be an additive, “up to around 50 percent,” used in conventional jet fuels.
“If we can increase productivity, then (fungi biofuel) can make a major impact and really be the standard. I do not think that we will see 100 percent biofuels for another 10 to 20 years, but this doesn’t mean we won’t be able to produce a fuel that is so standardized it will mean 100 percent substitution in the future,” she said.