Lufthansa Wants To Start Making Plane Fuel From Thin Air

The Lufthansa Group plans to use electricity to generate sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), where the carbon comes from CO2 in the atmosphere. The airline wants to take at least 25,000 liters of such fuel per year for at least five years. These fuels are currently only available in laboratory-sized quantities, with Lufthansa instead mainly purchasing biogenic origin fuels when it comes to SAFs.

Lufthansa, Electric Fuel, Sustainable Aviation Fuel
Lufthansa is hoping to start using aviation fuel made from thin air. Photo: Oliver Roesler via Lufthansa

Across the industry, there is a push for sustainability. Just today, IATA approved a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Earlier this year, British Airways CEO Sean Doyle said that zero-carbon aviation solutions would take 30 years, suggesting that sustainable aviation fuels will need to account for the bulk of the journey to net-zero.

Making fuel from the air?

The Lufthansa Group has entered into a partnership to buy “electricity-based kerosene”. The airline will be one of the first customers of this SAF, alongside the logistics firm Kuehne+Nagel. Today, representatives of Lufthansa and Kuehne+Nagel were in attendance at the SAF plant’s opening in Germany.

You may be wondering how this company intends to make fuel from the air. Clearly, there are a lot of processes tho be followed, and there is a lot of science that makes it happen. The very simple version starts with electricity being produced from renewable sources. This electricity is then used to complete the electrolysis of water. This essentially uses electricity to break water molecules down into hydrogen and oxygen.

Lufthansa, Electric Fuel, Sustainable Aviation Fuel
Lufthansa helps to explain the process of making the fuel. Photo: Lufthansa

A synthetic processing procedure takes CO2 out of the atmosphere and combines it with hydrolysis products to create fuel. This fuel is then transported to the airport, where it is loaded onto the plane. Theoretically, these fuels can be produced without availability limits.

When the plane burns the fuel, the carbon dioxide captured to make the fuel is re-released. It is classed as sustainable, as there is no net increase of carbon in the atmosphere with the fuel. Meanwhile, conventional fossil fuels take carbon locked in the earth and add them to the atmosphere.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

A small but essential step

To start with, Lufthansa will take at least 25,000 liters of fuel per year for at least five years. While it sounds like a lot, this is just a drop in the ocean. The airline recently revealed that its most efficient aircraft, the Airbus A350, burns roughly 2.5L of fuel per passenger per 100km. Lufthansa’s fuel commitment therefore equates to one passenger flying around the Earth on an Airbus A350 approximately 25 times.

Frankfurt Airport, Passenger Traffic, Cargo Volume
To start with, the amount of fuel produced will be a drop in the ocean. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

Clearly, this won’t have a significant impact on this industry in such small amounts. However, airlines must commit to taking these fuels to make them more accessible. SAFs have been locked in a vicious cycle. Because they were produced in such small amounts, they were expensive to make. Because they were expensive to make, they were costly to buy, meaning demand was low. Because demand was low, small amounts were made, and so on…

Recently, we’ve seen many airlines committing to certain amounts of SAF production to kickstart mass-scale production. This will hopefully bring down the cost for everybody, making cutting emissions a little bit more accessible.

What do you make of Lufthansa’s commitment to buy fuel made from electricity and water? Let us know what you think and why in the comments!