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For now, UMaine’s research on the three wood-to-jet fuel pathways is still at the laboratory and bench scales. There is a long way to go before any biofuel can meet the military specifications for jet fuel in terms of density, energy, boiling range, smoke point and other variables.
However, UMaine chemical and biological engineers G. Peter van Walsum and M. Clayton Wheeler, who have spearheaded the research, have had promising results.
Van Walsum’s research is in two pathways. The first, which he has conducted with Wheeler, is known as mixed-acid fermentation and has the potential of being a relatively inexpensive route to biofuel, but has not yet produced jet fuel. The second, called lipid accumulation, requires more expense, but has shown to produce jet fuel.
Wheeler is investigating the third pathway, which he calls UMaine thermal deoxygenation (TDO). UMaine TDO is wholly unique to the university, and may be the most promising revolution in drop-in biofuel research nationwide.
Here’s a look at each pathway, which all have as a starting point woody biomass — that is, anything with cellulose. In Maine, that means trees.