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Kansas makes airplanes. Soon it may make fuel for them, too, out of soybeans

Soybeans grow on a Montgomery County farm. A Canadian company may build a plant in the county that would churn out renewable jet fuel by 2027.
Kansas Soybean Association
Soybeans grow on a Montgomery County farm. A Canadian company may build a plant in the county that would churn out renewable jet fuel by 2027.

The White House wants the aviation industry to switch to renewable fuel by 2050, but factories that produce it are rare.

Three years from now, passengers may zip around the continent on airplanes propelled by renewable jet fuel from Kansas.

The key to producing this up-and-coming fuel? Soybeans.

A Canadian company aims to build the state’s first refinery that churns out sustainable aviation fuel. And it hopes to pipe the emissions from the southeast Kansas factory to a carbon sequestration site for storage deep underground.

Azure Sustainable Fuels Corp. proposes to build its jet fuel plant next door to a potential steady supply of the goods it needs: a newly built, giant soybean-crushing facility near Cherryvale that will kick into gear this year.

The jet fuel plant would begin supplying the aviation industry by 2027.

But the facility and its related infrastructure — an investment expected to total more than $900 million in rural Montgomery County — isn’t a done deal.

Azure is raising investor dollars, completing the engineering work and seeking regulatory approvals, a company spokesperson said. The company expects to make its final investment decision about a year from now. It is also pursuing potential sites in Manitoba, Ontario and British Columbia.

Last month, Azure secured tax incentives from Montgomery County.

The Montgomery County Chronicle, which first reported the story, wrote that county commissioners approved a package that means Azure wouldn’t have to pay local property taxes for a decade, nor sales tax on construction materials and labor.

The project would bring about 1,500 temporary jobs to the county for the construction phase, Azure said, and about 150 long-term, full-time positions.

“We believe that our project would help to enhance Kansas' rich aviation history,” Azure CEO Douglas Cole said in a news release.

Kansas exports more than $2 billion in aerospace products annually. The Kansas Department of Commerce says this makes up nearly one-fifth of the state’s annual exports. Major manufacturer Spirit Aerosystems is based in Wichita. Textron Aviation, which makes Cessna and Beech planes, also operates in the city.

Kansas is also one of the top 10 producers of soybeans in the U.S. So is neighboring Missouri.

A booming fuel market

Azure’s facility would produce a certified drop-in fuel.

Drop-in fuels are a subset of biofuels that blend safely with their fossil fuel counterparts even at higher ratios. Earlier generations of biofuel must be used at lower ratios.

In November, Virgin Atlantic made headlines by flying a large commercial jet from London to New York entirely on sustainable aviation fuel, with zero fossil fuel content.

BloombergNEF industry analysts say companies are flocking to the drop-in fuel sector. They predict that the global drop-in fuel supply — which also includes renewable diesel — will triple by 2030.

Diesel drop-in fuel is much more common than the aviation equivalent, and Kansas already produces it. Both versions reduce emissions, the Department of Energy says.

As of last April, the U.S. Department of Energy said just one facility in the country was producing sustainable aviation fuel, but other sites were under construction and this kind of fuel was also being imported.

The agency said use of the renewable fuel in the U.S. jumped from 5 million gallons in 2021 to nearly 16 million gallons in 2022. It said many airlines have inked deals with current and future producers of it that call for hundreds of millions of gallons.

The federal government has thrown its weight — and hundreds of millions of dollars — into the goal of significantly cutting aviation emissions by launching the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge.

It aims to get planes in the U.S. using 3 billion gallons of this fuel by 2030 and 10 times as much by 2050.

Put simply, it aims for the entire U.S. aviation industry to run 100% on this fuel by 2050.

Drop-in aviation fuel can tank up existing airplane engines, without the need to build new planes or modify their engines.

Soybeans would provide the key input for Azure’s product. The company says it would be possible to supplement with other sources, such as small quantities of canola, used cooking oil or tallow.

BloombergNEF says manufacturers of drop-in fuels could cut their carbon footprints by sourcing massive amounts of used cooking oil and other waste oils for their products — if they could get their hands on enough. Currently, though, analysts say that’s not an option.

Locating the Kansas plant next to Montgomery County’s new soybean-crushing plant would have advantages.

“It likely makes sense to utilize their output and cut down on transportation costs,” a spokesman for Azure said. “But we will also utilize feedstocks from other sources, which would be brought into our facility by rail or even truck.”

A local perspective

The Montgomery County Chronicle called Azure's plans a mammoth Christmas gift for the county in December, after the commission approved tax incentives for the facility.

Counties in southeast Kansas want more jobs to hold on to residents and attract new ones. Wichita State University’s Center for Economic Development and Business Research says Montgomery County population estimates have fallen from more than 35,000 in 2010 to about 32,000 in 2020. Other nearby counties face similar challenges.

In a column, Montgomery County Chronicle editor Andy Taylor wrote that the county has seen a string of employers close or shrink their operations over the past three decades. To name a few: American Insulated Wire Co., Heartland Cement Co. and a Mercy Hospital site.

“The loss of jobs and economic investment since 1994 has been staggering — if not depressing,” he wrote.

If Cherryvale’s new soybean-crushing plant attracts a fuel manufacturer to locate next door, he said, that would mean more than $1.3 billion in investment in the county and more than 200 jobs.

Bartlett Grain broke ground in 2022 on its $375 million soybean-crushing facility near Cherryvale to supply the food, animal feed and fuel industries. That plant brings 50 long-term jobs to the county.

Harvested soybeans before processing.
Kansas Soybean Association
Harvested soybeans before processing.

It will start taking in soybeans this quarter, and will crush 45 million bushels yearly, making it one of the country’s leading soybean processing plants.

As that plant neared completion, Bartlett and Azure announced a partnership, and the president of infrastructure at Bartlett’s Utah-based parent company joined the board of directors at Azure.

Taylor wrote that the two companies’ combined footprint could lead to helpful infrastructure upgrades. Already, Evergy has “retraced the entire Cherryvale community with improved lines and poles” to adjust for demand at Bartlett’s soybean-crushing plant.

The South Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad that will haul goods for Bartlett — and would do so for the aviation fuel plant — could see more investment, he wrote. And truck traffic would necessitate upgrades to “wider and safer” highways in the area.

Emissions and carbon sequestration

Azure says its facility will make about 135 million gallons of renewable fuel each year, mostly for aviation.

That would cut aviation emissions by 1 million tons per year, the company calculates. As a comparison, it said this is equivalent to the emissions generated by 200,000 cars.

The company has a goal of further minimizing the emissions involved in producing its fuel. It is collaborating with a Texas company to explore the possibility of sequestering carbon dioxide emitted at the Azure plant during fuel production.

The Kansas News Service contacted CapturePoint Solutions seeking more details, but the company could not be reached for comment.

CapturePoint’s website says it is working to create carbon dioxide injection wells in Kansas and five other states to store emissions in deep rock formations.

Carbon sequestration is a young industry gaining support from governments around the globe eager to deal with emissions.

More than 40 storage projects have begun operation globally, Reuters reported late last year. Stateside, it wrote, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has signed off on more than 20 sequestration projects and is considering dozens more.

The federal government is subsidizing the development of carbon capture projects with tax credits and grants.

Reuters reported that it’s too early to know if the concept will prove technologically and financially viable at large scales — and that environmental groups want stronger regulations to ensure the gases stay underground.

A 2020 carbon dioxide pipeline rupture in Mississippi sickened dozens of residents. Since then, opposition from wary communities has slowed or stopped at least two multistate pipeline proposals in the Midwest.

Pipelines are necessary for storing emissions underground because the gases must travel to areas with the right type of underground rock formations to serve as reservoirs.

Separately, biofuels have also sparked intense debates, even among environmental scientists.

Growing crops to power vehicles pits a variety of climate, geopolitical and conservation priorities against each other.

These priorities range from cutting emissions and dependence on fossil fuels to reserving farmland for food, preventing the conversion of prairies and woods into farmland, and reducing fertilizer pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, waterways and aquifers.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is the environment reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.