Grand Forks company D3MAX is helping turn ethanol into a more popular form of aviation fuel.
Mark Yancey, chief technology officer of D3MAX who previously retired from BBI International in 2020, said the technology used by D3MAX has been around for more than a decade.
“BBI created D3MAX in 2015 specifically for the purpose of commercializing the technology that my consulting group had developed in 2008 and 2009,” Yancey said. “A patent was issued for that technology in 2012. So, a lot of years went by.”
D3MAX creates cellulosic ethanol using “bolt-on” technology -- more or less meaning it is a one-size-fits-most process which, according to the company, can be implemented at approximately 190 corn dry mill ethanol plants in the United States.
The aviation industry could be headed for an increase in ethanol aviation fuel production as part of President Biden’s Sept. 9 announcement that his administration is partnering with the airline industry to reach the goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050, with the hopes of producing three billion gallons of sustainable fuel by 2030 as part of what is being called the ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) Grand Challenge.’ Aviation currently makes up as much as 4% of the total greenhouse gas emissions by the United States -- the most of any means of transportation.
Sustainable aviation fuel can be made from plants, waste and other organic materials, which in turn reduces the industry’s carbon footprint. D3MAX helps make ethanol from corn stover by converting corn fiber and residual starch left in distillers grains to cellulosic ethanol.
The company is hoping to rebound in 2021 after the ethanol industry suffered two of the worst years in its history back-to-back in 2019 and 2020.
“With COVID, every ethanol plant out there lost a lot of money in 2020,” Yancey said. “They also lost a record amount of money in 2019, because of small refinery waivers that President Trump’s EPA approved that decimated the ethanol market. Prices were abnormally low, and margins were negative in 2019, by and large, and then that was followed up by 2020.”
D3MAX spent October 2018 to December 2019 constructing a commercial ethanol plant with Ace Ethanol in Stanley, Wis.
“We started the plant up actually on Jan. 9, 2020, and then you know what happened in 2020,” Yancey said.
The COVID-19 pandemic itself would have dealt a huge blow to the ethanol industry in 2020, but the oil crash just before the pandemic began was exacerbated to the point prices per barrel dipped into the negatives for the first time ever on April 20, 2020, briefly reaching as low as -- $38 due to storage concerns of rising stockpile of fuel. The price rebounded to just above $0 per barrel the next day.
“It was almost simultaneous, but (oil collapsed) first,” Yancey said. “Ethanol prices tend to follow oil and gasoline prices, so the first thing that happened was there was a glut of oil, and the bottom dropped out of the price. Ethanol prices went to under $1 a gallon, and then COVID hit, and everybody stopped driving.”
Gasoline demand plummeted, which in turn led to ethanol demand dropping as well.
“What we at D3MAX had planned was, ‘We’ll start up this plant, we’ll show them that it works and then we’ll sell like gangbusters,’” Yancey said.
Instead, D3MAX was unable to sell any of the licenses for its technology.
“There’s no ethanol plants that were sitting on a bunch of money they were wanting to spend,” Yancey said. “So, we sold the one license to Ace. The plant ran all of 2020.”
The plant ended up shutting down for much of 2021 due to struggles drying the residual animal feed produced by the process. Yancey hopes it will be up and running again by Oct. 1. However, D3MAX was recently awarded $499,988 by the U.S. Department of Energy to design a pilot plant as part of the SAF Challenge, so Yancey is optimistic about what’s ahead for the company. As for ethanol itself, he believes it could be the future of aviation travel despite other methods of creating sustainable fuel being more popular at the moment.
“I absolutely think it can be, especially if it is cellulosic ethanol,” Yancey said. “That will get the life greenhouse gases reduction down to close to 100% versus a fossil fuel equivalent. A lot of the aviation fuel is going to be made from soybean oil and other vegetable oils. There’s technology to convert those into aviation fuel, so that’s a competing route.”
Not all of how corn stover being converted to aviation fuel is green, though. Scientists are concerned about biofuels, such as ones made from corn and soybeans, because the production itself of those fuels can cause emissions. The EPA has estimates corn ethanol emits 20% less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline, but it doesn’t account for emissions from fertilizers or trees possibly being cut down to make room for crops,
However, the advantage D3MAX and other companies championing corn stover-based ethanol have over soybean oil and vegetable oil is simple -- there’s more corn stover.
“The feed stock for vegetable oil is somewhat limited, especially when we start talking about waste grease and this and that,” Yancey said. “The economics look great when you’re using waste, but there’s not a lot out there. Corn stover, there’s lots of it. Corn is the biggest crop in the U.S. by far.”