Tallgrass Energy Partners has teamed with United Airlines Inc. and Green Plains Inc. to form Blue Blade Energy to develop a pilot project that could produce 135 million gallons/year of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). 

Tallgrass, which operates more than 7,000 miles of natural gas pipelines across the Midwest, said it is expecting to manage research and development (R&D) of United’s SAF technology as part of its work in the joint venture (JV). The technology was developed by United Air Ventures (UAV) and researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).  

Leawood, KS-based Tallgrass is targeting innovations in “how we deliver the energy that powers our nation and enables our quality of life,” said Vice President of Business Development Alison Nelson. “Air travel uniquely connects people and improves lives, and the advancement of this novel SAF technology presents a meaningful opportunity to reduce emissions from aviation.”

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The R&D Tallgrass would direct “is focused on the optimization and scale up of the catalysts and three-step process” which United developed with PNNL “to convert ethanol to jet fuel. If the technology is commercialized, we will also manage the construction of the full-scale facility,” Nelson told NGI via email. 

Blue Blade’s SAF as designed could produce 85% fewer greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis compared to traditional jet fuel, according to United. 

Nebraska-based Green Plains, which operates 11 ethanol biofuel refineries in the Lower 48, would supply ethanol feedstock for the SAF. 

The JV partners “are currently evaluating the optimal location for the full-scale facility. It will be located in the Midwest, in close proximity to Green Plains’ ethanol facilities,” Nelson said. 

Green Plains also is expecting to manage operations once the pilot SAF facility comes online. Commercial operations could start around 2028, with construction underway in 2024.

“Once operational, Blue Blade Energy has the potential to create United’s largest source of SAF,” said UAV President Michael Leskinen.

United Airlines would assist with SAF development, as well as fuel certification and fueling logistics. North America’s second-largest airline by passengers carried also agreed to purchase up to 2.7 billion gallons of SAF from the JV over the course of the project’s lifetime. 

Tallgrass is also bringing its “experience in the construction and operation of large-scale energy infrastructure, as well as our expertise in the commercial development of low-carbon projects, to the joint venture,” Nelson added. 

The SAF initiative is one of many recent initiatives Tallgrass is using to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its operations and for the Midwest. In January 2022, the Wyoming Energy Authority awarded the company more than $4.1 million to fund development of a commercial-scale carbon dioxide (CO2) sequestration hub. 

In July, Tallgrass also said it was exploring CO2 transportation options by abandoning and repurposing the Trailblazer Pipeline Co. LLC. Trailblazer and Rockies Express Pipeline LLC (REX), both owned by Tallgrass, filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission earlier this year to shift natural gas flows from Trailblazer onto REX. 

In addition, Tallgrass and Norway’s Equinor ASA in September said they would be researching large-scale hydrogen production to capture at least 95% of the CO2 for permanent sequestration, as well as to transport and store ammonia. 

Tallgrass operates natural gas transportation and storage systems capable of moving more than 8.8 Bcf/d and storing 16 Bcf, including Cheyenne Connector, Tallgrass Interstate Gas Transmission, Trailblazer and REX.

SAF Taking Off In Oil Industry

The Inflation Reduction Act signed into law last year by President Biden could paint a brighter picture for the fuel, as the law encourages more use and production through a $1.25-1.75/gallon tax credit for SAF blenders.

While the incentive may not be enough to meet the administration’s goal to decarbonize the aviation sector by 2050, this has not deterred airlines and the oil industry turning from traditional jet fuel to SAF.

Valero Energy Corp. recently announced that its 50/50 JV with Darling Ingredients Inc., dubbed Diamond Green Diesel Holdings LLC (DGD), reached a final investment decision for its SAF plant.

The Port Arthur DGD plant southeast of Houston is expected to come online in 2025. Capacity is designed to produce about 470 million gallons/year of SAF. DGD said the project’s cost would be about $315 million, and could “be one of the largest SAF manufacturers in the world” once complete.