This Georgia refinery is making low-carbon jet fuel from alcohol

LanzaJet will produce millions of gallons of sustainable aviation fuel this year, just as the Biden administration finalizes rules for lucrative SAF tax credits.
By Maria Gallucci

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The LanzaJet Freedom Pines Fuels facility in Soperton, Georgia (LanzaJet)

A new refinery in Georgia is about to churn out millions of gallons of jet fuel — except the fuel will be made not from petroleum but from plants.

On Wednesday, LanzaJet marked the opening of its Freedom Pines Fuels facility, which uses novel technology to convert ethanol into sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. The $200 million biorefinery is the first in the world to deploy an alcohol-to-jet” process, one that the company claims can curb greenhouse gas emissions by over 70 percent compared to conventional jet fuel. 

The plant is proof of the energy transition accelerating in real time,” said Jennifer Holmgren, the board chair of LanzaJet, which spun out of the Illinois-based company LanzaTech in 2020.

The ribbon-cutting event drew attendance from U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Department of Energy officials, as well as the company’s top financial backers. The Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund invested $50 million and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy awarded a $50 million grant, both in 2022, to support construction of the first-of-a-kind facility.

As we start up the plant, we will continue to refine our technology, while launching our efforts to advance new sustainable fuels projects globally,” Jimmy Samartzis, LanzaJet’s CEO, said in a statement. 

A growing push for U.S. sustainable aviation fuel

Freedom Pines Fuels is firing up in Soperton, Georgia at a pivotal moment for the emerging SAF industry.

The Biden administration is pushing to dramatically boost production of lower-carbon jet fuels this decade, including by providing generous tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act. In December, the Treasury Department issued guidelines for which alternative fuels will qualify for the tax credits. The rules, which aren’t yet final, have spurred intense debate among environmental groups and fuel producers over how the federal government should calculate potential emissions reductions.

Globally, air travel accounts for 2 percent of annual energy-related CO2 emissions, a figure that’s set to climb in coming years as passenger air travel soars. Last year, a post-pandemic rebound in flying helped drive up U.S. transportation-related emissions by 1.6 percent relative to 2022 — countering some of the emissions reductions achieved by installing renewable electricity, according to the Rhodium Group.

At their best, SAF can offer airlines an immediate way to start slashing this CO2 pollution until more transformative climate solutions become available. But fuels derived from crops, which can include ethanol, or made from energy-intensive methods may ultimately be just as bad for the climate as fossil jet fuel — or worse, experts say.

How we produce the fuels is critical,” Pedro Piris-Cabezas, an economist and the lead SAF expert for Environmental Defense Fund, told Canary Media. The details matter.”

For airlines, switching to SAF is relatively straightforward. These alternative fuels can be blended with, or entirely replace, petroleum-based kerosene in existing jet engines. The main challenge is getting SAF in the first place. Supplies remain extremely limited and can cost two to five times more than conventional jet fuel.

The U.S. produced just 15.8 million gallons of SAF in 2022, or less than 0.1 percent of the total amount of jet fuel used by major U.S. airlines that year. The Biden administration has set a target of producing 3 billion gallons of SAF per year by 2030 — a nearly 200-fold increase.

Doing the CO2 math on SAF 

The Freedom Pines Fuels facility will make a small but meaningful contribution toward that goal when it begins production in the first quarter of this year. At full capacity, the plant is expected to produce 9 million gallons of SAF per year, plus another 1 million gallons per year of renewable diesel for road transportation.

The facility’s novel technology is more than a decade in the making, having come from LanzaTech’s earlier collaboration with the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Lab. The alcohol-to-jet process involves using grid electricity, fossil gas and hydrogen — a compound that is today mostly derived from fossil gas — to transform ethanol into jet fuel.

LanzaJet says the Georgia plant will use a range of low-carbon-intensity” ethanol, including potentially from cellulosic feedstocks such as corn stover and municipal solid waste. In an email, the company said it will initially use Midwestern-source ethanol within the United States.”

Last year, LanzaJet also received federal approval to use sugarcane ethanol, the bulk of which is produced in Brazil. Using LanzaJet’s process with this feedstock can deliver emissions reductions of 54 to 66 percent when compared to a fossil diesel baseline, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

But Piris-Cabezas said he’s concerned that any SAF facility using corn or sugarcane crops could ultimately increase aviation emissions if indirect effects are fully accounted for — such as the CO2 that’s released when forests are cleared to grow crops for energy.

How these life-cycle emissions are calculated and considered is at the heart of the debate around federal tax credits for SAF producers. When releasing its guidelines last year, the Treasury Department noted that the Biden administration is working to develop a modified version” of its existing CO2-accounting methodology, which is expected out by March 1.

Environmental Defense Fund and other climate groups are urging the Treasury Department to strengthen its accounting approach for determining life-cycle emissions to avoid rewarding fuels that deliver few to no climate benefits. On the other side, biofuel producers, including LanzaJet, have voiced support for using Treasury’s existing methods, which they say reflect recent advances to reduce the carbon intensity of biofuels, including by improving agricultural practices.

Ultimately, Piris-Cabezas said, the imperative is to ensure we channel public resources toward truly sustainable aviation fuels that actually have a future, in terms of decarbonizing aviation over the long run.”

Maria Gallucci is a senior reporter at Canary Media. She covers emerging clean energy technologies and efforts to electrify transportation and decarbonize heavy industry.