You could be leaving on a corn-fueled jet plane

Corn. It’s not just for summer cookouts or animal feed anymore. For years, Midwest corn producers have been supplying feedstock for ethanol. Now, a team of researchers led by the University of North Dakota is working on a $3.75 million project to turn corn plant waste into jet fuel.

Today’s headlines:


  • The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Agra Energy are partnering on a new technology that converts methane-rich biogas from dairy manure into synthetic liquid fuels that meet diesel specifications. The partners aim to produce scalable solutions that work for commercial applications.
  • Purdue University researcher discovered that a plant’s cuticle, or protective outer layer, plays an unexpectedly large role in increasing the production of volatile compounds that are important for plant defenses and for use in biofuels.

✈️ AVIATION: Northwestern University engineers are developing next-generation propulsion technologies for the U.S. Army that allow drones to use many different kinds of fuels and remain operational longer. An overall goal is to improve drones’ efficiency, power density, and reliability.

🌊 WATER: The Irrigation Innovation Consortium, of which Kansas State University and the University of Nebraska are founding members, issued a request for proposals for projects that accelerate water and irrigation technology development and adoption. There is $600,000 in funding available for projects that match priority areas such as water and energy efficiency.

🚗 TRANSPORTATION: Toyota Mobility Foundation is going to build its first U.S.-based Future Mobility District in Indiana, reports The district will foster innovation in advanced transportation technology, including low- to zero-carbon transit.

🏆 HONORS: FLEx Lighting is among the Chicago Innovation Awards winners. The business’s low-power mobile device displays reduce electronic screen energy use and extend battery life.

Now, back to the University of North Dakota-led, four-year, $3.75 million project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, to produce jet fuel from corn waste.

Scientists will work on a way to convert corn stover — stalks, stems, and leaves — into jet fuel. They will target the lignin, a common plant cell building block, in the stover.

The technology: Researchers will create a solution that can be put into reactors. It will contain the extracted lignin and a catalyst. The solution will go through a reactor with hydrogen at high pressure and high temperature, which helps the catalyst break down the lignin into compounds known as cyclohexanes. The cyclohexanes have the same properties of jet fuel but are less corrosive and toxic.

When the lignin solution is optimized, a prototype will be sent to the University of Dayton in Ohio to undergo fuel specification testing.

Corn stover and jet fuel fun facts:

  • About 70% of stover usually goes back into a field to renew the soil, which leaves 30% available for use as a biomass resource. That adds up to millions of tons available nationwide each year for use as a raw material.
  • A key challenge with making jet fuel from plant material is achieving a high energy density to compete with conventional fuels. “Jets fuels are extremely difficult to formulate. … You need a very high energy density, a very low freezing point, and a very low volatility,” Wayne Seames, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering in the UND College of Engineering & Mines, said in a statement.
    Wayne Seames


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