26 September 2023

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

Alder Fuels reorganises after leadership upheaval and receives DOE grant to support new demo facility

The start of 2023 has been a challenging time for US sustainable aviation fuel startup Alder Fuels as it undergoes changes following the sudden departure of its founder and CEO Bryan Sherbacow. Following a new multimillion-dollar injection of funding from its existing investors, the company has now reorganised its operations, personnel and partnerships, and is focusing its resources on commercial deployment and certification of its Alder Greencrude (AGC) technology. Industry veteran Sherbacow, who the Alder board said had “engaged in questionable financial transactions that benefited him personally”, has been replaced by Acting CEO Tim Obitts. In positive news for the company, Alder has received a Phase 1 Grant Award of $2 million from the US Department of Energy, its third award, to support the engineering design of the company’s first demonstration-scale plant, which is expected to be located in the US Southeast. Investors in Alder include United Airlines and business aviation fuel and services provider Avfuel, who also have offtake purchase agreements in place for 1.5 billion and 1 billion gallons of SAF respectively over 20 years.

In a statement, a bullish Xavier Adserà, Chairman of Alder Fuels and CEO of London-based private equity firm Adequita Capital, commented: “With multiple DOE grants awarded, strong leadership, multimillion-dollar investments, significant strategic partners and a commercial path forward, Alder’s enormous potential is clear. Once commercialised, Alder’s proprietary technology will play a pivotal role in decarbonising and defossilising critical parts of our economy. The Board and its investors are committed to the company’s success.”

The statement added: “To our friends and colleagues whose roles were directly affected by this reorganisation of operations at Alder Fuels, we thank you for your commitment to the company. You executed your work diligently, with a belief that our mission is bigger than any one individual. Without doubt, you have made this company and our culture better, and we are grateful for your time with us.”

Among the casualties of the reorganisation is Chief Sustainability Officer Nancy Young, who has now left the company. Young was previously VP Environmental Affairs for trade association Airlines for America (formerly the Air Transport Association of America) for 14 years. During this period, she served on working groups at the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative and at ICAO, as well as on the Board of the aviation industry’s Air Transport Action Group.

Sherbacow co-founded AltAir Fuels, a retrofitted refinery in Paramount, California, producing renewable diesel and renewable jet fuel, in 2010 and stayed on as Chief Commercial Officer when the company was taken over by World Energy in 2018. The facility was the world’s first commercial-scale renewable jet fuel plant and began supplying regular deliveries in 2015 to United Airlines.

Obitts took up the role of Acting CEO last month, having joined Alder as Chief Legal Officer early last year. He was previously President & CEO of the National Transportation Association, a US trade body made up of over 3,700 companies. “At Alder, we remain focused on a singular goal: to deliver commercial deployment of our proprietary Alder Greencrude technology,” he said following his appointment.

The Alder technology is based on already commercially viable and validated fast pyrolysis in which woody biomass is converted to a green biocrude that can then be co-hydroprocessed with esters and fatty acids (HEFA) within existing refinery infrastructure to produce a sustainable aviation fuel rich in cyclo-paraffins and aromatics. The company says the SAF properties have exceptional energy density, reduced sooting tendency and polymer seal swell, so enabling a 100% blend. Partners involved in developing the technology include Honeywell UOP (another investor in the company), BTG Bioliquids, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Washington State University, RPD Technologies, Boeing and others.

“At Alder and with our partners, our technology team has worked tirelessly to advance AGC production and hydrotreating from the lab to pilot scale using a rigorous ‘stage gate’ development process,” said Derek Vardon, Chief Technology Officer at Alder. “We simply would not have been able to advance AGC without the support of these technologists and industry-leading experts.”

Last October, Alder selected BTG’s proprietary fast pyrolysis technology for its first AGC processing facility at the so-far undetermined site in the US Southeast. BTG  develops production plants through its engineering, procurement and construction partner, TechnipEnergies. Fast pyrolysis bio-oil conversion of Alder’s feedstock has been completed at both BTG pilot and demonstration scale plants in the Netherlands, which has been shipped back to Alder’s laboratory and will be used for ASTM certification purposes.

As a result of a long-term, exclusive contract signed last September, Enviva will supply up to 750,000 tonnes per year of sustainably sourced woody biomass to Alder’s AGC facility when commercial production starts. Enviva says its feedstock adheres to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard and the two companies have committed to gaining sustainability certification under the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials standard.

Alder is currently pursuing ASTM certification, a critical next step for the company as its technology is not among the seven technology pathways so far approved as a drop-in, alternative jet fuel. “The preliminary datasets related to fuel properties are encouraging,” a company spokesperson told GreenAir. “They suggest we may be able to enter the so-called ‘Fast Track’ approach to certification, which can take 12-18 months and would be significantly faster than the standard path that can take years. We haven’t received formal approval as yet but we have been in discussions and are hopeful it will come this year. We are confident the technology works.

“It is important to note that even without ASTM certification, AGC can be used to make renewable diesel and marine fuel, as well as green chemicals.”

Five of the pathways that have been approved so far under the ASTM D4054 process are required to be blended with petroleum-based jet fuel up to a 50% maximum level, with the other two requiring a maximum 10% level. The blend percentage for each concept that goes through the D4054 Fast Track is currently limited to 10%.

An attractive feature of the Alder Greencrude product is that as a result of pyrolysis, it retains aromatics that are necessary for seal swell in jet engines. A major reason for the 50% maximum blend limit in the present approved pathways is that the technologies employed produce SAF with no aromatic content. To achieve a 100% sustainable aviation fuel therefore requires an additional synthetic aromatic kerosene content and so the Alder product with its cyclo-paraffins has a potential distinct advantage over other SAFs, while also avoiding some of the downsides of aromatics, such as the generation of excess particulates.

“In theory, we could make a 100% SAF but we’re not pursuing it yet as ASTM has not finalised how they are going to qualify 100% SAF,” said the spokesperson. “We are looking at the Fast Track process and will hopefully get certification within 18 months. Once we have it, we’ll decide on the next level of certification, whether it’s 100% SAF or we look for a higher blending level.”

With discussions still ongoing with states and counties on the exact location for the demonstration-scale plant, the company is not yet ready to disclose when construction will start and does not expect completion within the next two years. The facility will be rated to process 120 dry tonnes per day of forest residuals and produce 3 million gallons per year of liquid hydrocarbon biofuel, of which 2 million gallons will be SAF.

“We are still focused on project development and AGC pilot testing to inform engineering for commercial-scale production. We will have more to share on our revised delivery timeline in the coming months,” he reported. “The focus, for now, is resolutely on achieving key technical milestones that further de-risk our production process and get us to the next stage of growth.”

Photo: United Airlines

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