The world is increasingly turning to leaders to reduce the human impact on climate change, with global aviation often highlighted as one of the major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. While Earth has been granted some reprieve over the past few months, emissions are unfortunately part of a vital transportation bounceback. But just how far away are we from commercially viable sustainable aviation fuel?
SAFs are crucial to industry sustainability
Despite the hiccup in demand for global air travel that will reverberate for some years, growth is bound to bounce back. Pre-crisis, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that aviation would account for 15% of global oil demand up to 2030, a similar amount to that of passenger vehicles.
Such a rise would mean that aviation would be responsible for 3.5% of energy-related CO2 emissions in a decade, up from just over 2.5% today. This expansion, albeit delayed due to the present crisis and subsequent recovery, brings home the need for the industry to tackle its carbon emissions. The key to this is Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF).
20% of aviation fuel by 2040
In 2009, the commercial aviation industry agreed on a plan with the target of reducing net aviation CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050, relative to 2005 levels. It also placed a cap on emissions according to 2020, which might, in all fairness, be challenging to keep, given the unprecedented circumstances of this particular year.
Nevertheless, the development of cost-effective SAFs will be instrumental in helping the industry reach its sustainability goals. The IEA predicts they will make up about 10% of aviation fuel demand by 2030 and 20% by 2040. So what exactly are they?
CO2 emission cut by up to 80%
SAFs are produced from sustainable, renewable feedstocks and very similar in their chemistry to jet-fuel. Some common sources are cooking oil and other waste oils from animals or plants, solid waste from homes or businesses such as paper, textile, and food scraps.
Other potential materials are forestry by-products and energy crops, such as fast-growing plants or algae. Depending on the feedstock used, SAFs can give a reduction of up to 80% of CO2 emissions compared to liquid hydrocarbon fuel over its life-cycle.
Select flights and airlines so far
The very first airline test-flight with biofuel took place in 2008. Virgin Atlantic flew a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam with one tank filled with a fuel blend of 20% coconut and babassu oil.
The very first commercial flight did not take place until 2011 when KLM carried 171 passengers from Amsterdam to Paris on a 737 partially powered by waste vegetable oil.
Fast forward nearly decade, and Virgin Australia has fueled more than 700 flights and one million kilometers using alcohol-to-jet fuel. United Airlines has committed to 900 million US gallons for the next ten years and will develop up to five biofuel facilities near its hubs.
Europe’s first SAF plant in 2022
Speaking of KLM, last year, the carrier committed to purchasing 75,000 tonnes of biofuel per year from 2022 onwards from a new plant by SkyNRG. The production facilities will be Europe’s first dedicated to SAFs and will focus on regional waste and residue feedstocks.
“From 2022, the plant will produce 100,000 tonnes a year, of which KLM will purchase 75,000 tonnes. This will reduce our CO2 emissions by 200,000 tonnes a year, which is equal to the emissions released by 1,000 KLM flights between Amsterdam and Rio de Janeiro,” KLM CEO Pieter Elbers said at the time, according to FlightGlobal.
Airbus and Boeing offering SAF deliveries
In January this year, the French Government, along with Airbus, AirFrance, tech-company Safran, SUEZ recycling, and energy producer Total formed a working group to develop a SAF industry in France.
Airbus has also provided carbon-neutral aircraft delivery to JetBlue and Delta Air Lines, with a biofuel blend from Air BP and Neste. (An offset scheme was used to reach full neutrality.)
Boeing also offers customers the option of powering their commercial jet delivery flights with SAFs. The option is thus far available from the manufacturer’s Puget Sound facilities.
Furthermore, Boeing operated the world’s first 100% biofuel flight in 2018 with the ecoDemonstrator’s FedEx Express 777 Freighter flight-test airplane.
Desert plants and add-on option
Boeing’s SAF projects have included feedstocks such as forestry and agriculture waste, Brazilian sugarcane, nicotine-free tobacco plants in South Africa, and other plants that grow in the desert irrigated by coastal seawater in the United Arab Emirates.
In January 2019, Etihad Airways flew the world’s first passenger flight using sustainable fuel from those desert plants, operating a 787 Dreamliner from Abu Dhabi to Amsterdam.
SAS allows its passengers to pay more to use biofuel, according to what the airline says is a not-for-profit scheme. The option is available when purchasing the ticket, or any time up until departure for flights from one of the carrier’s hubs in Oslo, Copenhagen or Stockholm.
Any aircraft certified for jet-fuel can go bio
Any aircraft certified for using the current specification of jet-fuel would also be able to fly on SAFs. However, at the moment, their production is limited due to higher costs. It is also only available in limited locations and lacks needed government support.
According to IATA, over 200,000 flights have taken off partially powered by SAFs since 2016, and over 40 airlines now have experience with it. IATA predicts a turning point will be when SAFs power close to 2% of all flights, which it has predicted could happen as soon as 2025. This would then create the momentum to increase production at a much faster rate.
To reach the 2% level, SAF production would need to grow from the current output of 15 million liters, which accounts for only 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption to 7 billion liters per year. Currently, facilities for 1.7 billion liters are under construction, and only five aviation biofuel pathways are approved for blending with fossil fuel kerosene.
How to speed up production?
What can be done to accelerate the production of and pivot towards SAFs? While it is important that airlines keep increasing demand, which will, in turn, decrease costs, governments most definitely have a large part to play.
Not through direct policies towards aviation, although we are seeing some emphasized effort through the carrot-mechanism of state-aid during the crisis, but also through creating the right policy incentives conducive to investment in SAF production and research and development of related technologies. Public-private partnerships, PPPs, could also be a way to go.
Are you willing to pay more to know that sustainable fuel sources power your flight? How do you think the present crisis could impact the airlines’ commitment to reducing emissions long term? Let us know in the comments.