Aviation Wants Sustainable Fuels. The Problem Is There Isn’t Enough

Source: By Heather Farmbrough, Forbes • Posted: Wednesday, December 6, 2023

How did you get to COP28?

Bill Gates flew in on his own private jet. So did King Charles III, Rishi Sunak and foreign secretary David Cameron. Couldn’t they have shared a ride? Not so, but the prime minister’s office said Sunak’s plane used 30% sustainable aviation fuel. It’s understood the King also used SAF.

In an essay in the New York Times, Gates wrote, ‘If you fly in a private jet, as I do, you can afford the extra cost of sustainable aviation fuel made from low-carbon crops and waste.’

Meanwhile Richard Branson scored a publicity coup by flying a Boeing 787 from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK on 100% SAF. Virgin Atlantic’s Flight100 was the first transatlantic flight and longest commercial flight to date using SAF, a renewable biofuel that can potentially deliver the same performance as petroleum-based jet fuel with only a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions.

“Flight100 proves that Sustainable Aviation Fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonising long haul aviation,” says Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic.

The airline claims emissions on the flight have been slashed by up to 70%. Over a year, Virgin estimates a single aircraft operating the same route using SAF could save some 6,000 tonnes of fuel burn.

After draining the 787s Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines of the remaining SAF, Virgin flew back from JFK on Wednesday night with conventional Jet A fuel. As the replacement fuel is identical to fossil fuel at a molecular level, no modifications at all were needed to the aircraft’s Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.

VS100 was powered by two blended two kinds of SAF. Most (88%) came from hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids, from EU-sourced used cooking oil and waste animal fat from restaurants. The remaining 12% came from Synthetic Aromatic Kerosene from the U.S. and with plant sugar byproducts.

Aviation wants more SAF

Clamour is growing for SAFs to be allowed for commercial passenger flights. In November, Emirates flew the world’s first A380 demonstration flight powered entirely by 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel, used on one of the aircraft’s four engines.

It’s been estimated that if airlines adopted sustainable fuel on some services rather than fossil fuels, they could save around 80% on their carbon footprint for these more eco-friendly services.

A number of commercial airlines are already using SAF blended with Jet Fuel. For instance, SAS used 3,083 tonnes of SAF over 2022, but this was less than 0.96% of total fuel consumption.

Therein lies the rub. SAFs account for less than 0.1% of global aviation fuel and the agricultural resources required are under threat.

“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment,” warns Virgin’s Weiss. “This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by Government, are in place.”

Moreover, decades of over-use of agricultural land and forests to harvest high volumes of the biomass necessary has had a negative impact on ecosystems and biodiversity. While airlines in the U.S. want to use corn to ramp up the production of ethanol, producing corn uses up a lot of water. A New York Times data investigation earlier this year found that groundwater was being depleted across the country, mainly from agricultural use.

SAF: Right or Wrong?

“Biofuels are alright to use as long as we don’t use more biomass than our ecosystems can reproduce each year,’’ comments sustainable development expert René Mortensen. His comments apply to all biofuels, not just the agricultural crops and waste products used in SAF.

Altering agricultural practices to regenerative practices in the short term would probably lead to lower biomass volumes for farms to export. The natural conclusion, warns Mortensen, would be that there would be less biomass available to produce biofuels and so competition for biofuels will increase. If so, populations in poorer countries who need food are likely to lose out since they would not be able to pay as much as aviation companies.

Urgent innovation is needed to bring costs down and increase availability, particularly for most e-fuels, mostly still in the demonstration and piloting phase, argues McKinsey in a new report. There’s no single method for making SAF: for instance, Lufthansa is planning to make it from sunlight.

Tomorrow in Dubai, the Global Sustainable Aviation Forum will discuss the energy transition in aviation and scaling up production, supplies, investment and opportunities for SAF. Registration for the event is already full.

The global aviation industry has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Last year, Etihad Airways – one of the UAE’s host airlines – flew delegates to COP27 on an aircraft with net zero emissions.