As airlines face pressure to reduce their carbon footprint, many firms are looking to Sustainable Aviation Fuel, abbreviated as SAF and pronounced “saff”, as a way to cut CO2 emissions without replacing existing jet engines.
Using conventional aviation fuel, a roundtrip flight from New York to Los Angeles generates 2 metric tons of carbon dioxide on a typical airline . That’s the same as driving a passenger car more than 5,000 miles . Jetting from Denver to Paris generates 5 metric tons of CO2. While Miami to Shanghai puts out nearly 10 tons of carbon dioxide. This chart shows how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are generated by air travel as compared to other forms of transportation on a passenger per kilometer basis .
In this video, we’ll take a look at how SAF is produced and some of the obstacles for companies hoping to capitalize on the demand for green jet fuel. The path to commercialization takes several years, and it’s only now arriving for a handful of SAF producers. The demand will likely grow as policymakers in Europe and the US consider new requirements for the use of sustainable aviation fuels.
Although carbon emissions from jet travel make up only 2.5% of global greenhouse gases, experts worry that as the demand for air travel grows in developing parts of the world, so too will that figure. In addition to carbon dioxide, jet engines also produce additional sulfur and nitrogen pollutants, water vapor and contrails . These compounds amplify the overall contribution of jet travel to climate warming to an estimated 7-8% of global emissions . According to projections from the International Civil Aviation Organization, carbon emissions from the aviation sector are projected to double by 2050 .
The United States is the biggest polluter, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, but China is catching up quickly . For context, the US’s 179 million metric tons is approximately 2% of total US emissions. For the EU and China the percentage is similar. But sustainable aviation fuel might allow commercial aircraft to keep flying while mitigating their overall environmental impact. Aviation industry studies show SAF can reduce CO2 emissions by 60 to 80% moving towards 100% and potentially become a negative emission technology through supply optimization, use of biofuels for transport, use of green hydrogen for the fuel processing, and carbon sequestration [8,10].
SAF is essentially a synthetic form of kerosene produced by refining various plant or animal feedstocks, waste oil from cooking, and solid waste. SAF is a drop-in fuel meaning it can be used without making modifications to existing jet engines . Right now, SAF only accounts for somewhere between 4 to 10 million gallons of the 100 billion gallons burned each year by commercial aviation . But that number is starting to grow. To better understand SAF, we spoke with Steve Csonka, the executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI) about how SAF is made and who is making it.
So far, the aviation industry has approved seven different methodologies whereby a fuel can be produced from a renewable resource. At the end of the day, what we’re really after is being able to take the primary things that nature gives us and convert those into fuels. And those are lipids, sugars and starches, lignocellulose generally, and then these, I refer to them as circular economy by-product streams, things like industrial off gases, waste streams that come off of food processing facilities. And there’s a lot of waste streams actually, there are seven or eight different waste streams that we’re accounting for.
So who is producing SAF? There are now five producers worldwide producing sustainable aviation fuel. Those are World Energy in California, Neste in Finland, Gevo in Minnesota and Texas, TotalEnergies in France, Eni, and Air BP, and many others are well on their way. Fulcrum Bioenergy has just completed construction on a facility outside of Reno, Nevada that converts municipal solid waste to jet fuel, and they anticipate producing fuel by the end of 2021. And Red Rock is working on a facility in Southern Oregon using forestry residues. The SAF produced by these facilities currently costs about twice as much as petroleum-based jet fuels , but they also produce up to 80%, fewer emissions compared to conventional fossil fuels over the lifecycle of production .
When biomass is used to produce SAF, these plants have absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis in relatively short time scales. The carbon that is emitted back into the atmosphere during jet engine combustion will be reabsorbed by plants in a closed loop. Ideally, by using plant-based fuel, no additional carbon would be injected into the atmosphere. Of course, some carbon emissions are created during the refinery process, as well as transporting the fuel from the refinery to the airport. It’s also important to avoid the use of feedstocks from non-sustainable sources, such as Palm Oil produced on farms that replaced tropical forests. But reports by the International Civil Aviation Organization find that sustainable aviation fuels produce up to 80%, fewer carbon emissions over the lifecycle of production than a comparable amount of conventional aviation fuel, which is refined from crude oil.
As more energy companies commit to making SAF, Csonka expects the cost to come down. SAF will go a long way in helping the airline industry’s promise to cut emissions to one half of 2005 levels by 2050 . But the nascent SAF industry has to be financially sustainable as well as environmentally sustainable.
If a producer comes and wants to talk to an airline about buying sustainable aviation fuel, one of the things that they’ll be requested to demonstrate is whether they have a plan for how they can continue to take price out of the renewable product and be moving it in the direction of the price point of a petroleum-based jet fuel.
Sustainable aviation fuel companies must prove that their product works in a jet engine, reduces emissions, and is cost effective over the long-term .
Policy makers in the US and Europe are looking at SAF as a part of a broader effort to cut carbon emissions. White house cabinet members met recently with airline executives to discuss the idea of tax breaks for using green fuels and support for new low carbon technologies . US representatives Julia Brownley from California, Brad Schneider from Illinois, and Dan Kildee from Michigan introduced legislation that would require tax incentives to blend SAF into existing fuels . Representative Brownley also introduced a bill going further and requiring the US military use at least 10% SAF in its air fleet by 2024 .
United Airlines says it will purchase 3.4 million gallons of SAF made from trash this year paid for by contributions from Nike, HP, Siemens, and a dozen other corporate clients . Air India signed an agreement with a commercial SAF refinery in 2020 to use biofuel produced by sugarcane waste . Lufthansa agreed to buy SAF made from animal waste in flights between its European hubs and San Francisco International Airport . European Union leaders are expected to approve new rules that will require European airports to gradually increase their use of SAF from 2% in 2025 to 63% in 2050. Those rules would affect all aircraft, whether they are from European, Asian or US-based commercial carriers . There are clear signs of progress in ramping up both production and use of sustainable aviation fuel. Even though many hurdles remain, advocates say the future looks bright for sustainable aviation.
For more information, and to listen to the full podcast with Steve Csonka, go to our website at climatenow.com. Thank you and goodbye.
- 00:33, 00:49 Atmosfair Emissions Calculator, https://www.atmosfair.de/en/offset/flight/
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- 2:54, 6:33 International Civil Aviation Association (2021) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia) Default Life Cycle Emissions Values for CORSIA Eligible Fuels https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/CORSIA/Documents/ICAO%20document%2006%20-%20Default%20Life%20Cycle%20Emissions%20-%20March%202021.pdf
- 2:53 Image from Neste, Sustainable Aviation Fuel – tanker truck at airport
- 3:08 personal correspondence with Steve Csonka (CAAFI)
- 3:20 Air BP, Sustainable Aviation Fuel, https://www.bp.com/en/global/air-bp/aviation-fuel/sustainable-aviation-fuel.html
- 3:36 4 million gallons in the US alone (https://www.epa.gov/fuels-registration-reporting-and-compliance-help/spreadsheet-rin-generation-and-renewable-fuel-0) and at least as much if not more out of Neste according to Steve Csonka (CAAFI)
- 4:37, 4:44 videos from Neste facility Laitos 2 FHD https://brandhub.neste.com/d/2ckGcVbrbCzJ/images-videos/show/eyJpZCI6IjQ1OTgifQ:neste:myZHA1sYASbo_RUo26rQZlHWiY1k9TKuVnkqVNUG1Uc
- 4:46 video from Gevo https://vimeo.com/451342390
- 4:49 TotalEnergies factory image from https://bioage.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341c4fbe53ef026bdecae04b200c-800wi
- 4:50 Eni image from https://www.eni.com/en_DE/business-activities.page
- 4:52 Air BP image from © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Airport_tank_truck_of_air_bp_on_Cologne_Bonn_Airport-7282.jpg
- 4:57 videos from Fulcrum https://youtu.be/ZpLsIRuvyZM
- 5:12 videos from Red Rock https://www.redrockbio.com/lakeview-site/
- 5:22 van Hal, J.W. (2021) Cost Effective Sustainable Aviation Fuel. TNO. https://www.tno.nl/en/about-tno/news/2021/4/cost-effective-sustainable-aviation-fuel/
- 6:50 Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) ICAO Environment, https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/CORSIA/Pages/default.aspx
- 7:32 Epstein, Curt (2020) ASTM Approves New Sustainable Jet Fuel Process. AIN Online, https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/business-aviation/2020-07-06/astm-approves-new-sustainable-jet-fuel-process#:~:text=ASTM%20International%2C%20the%20standards%20body,the%20aviation%20industry%20to%20seven.
- 7:41 Koenig, David (2021) Airline CEOs, Biden officials consider green-fuel breaks. Associated Press, https://apnews.com/article/scott-kirby-climate-climate-change-airlines-pete-buttigieg-6bed112b680f66762efe9a6ebf476c31
- 8:00 Press Release from the Office of Congressman Brad Schneider (May 2021) Schneider Introduces Bill to Decarbonize Aviation Fulfill Climate Commitments, https://schneider.house.gov/media/press-releases/schneider-introduces-bill-decarbonize-aviation-fulfill-climate-commitments
- 8:18 Brownley, J. (April 2021) Sustainable aviation fuel takes flight. The Hill. https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/energy-environment/548591-sustainable-aviation-fuel-takes-flight
- 8:25 Ajmera, A. and T. Rucinski, (April 2021) United Airlines unveils plan to fund more sustainable jet fuel made from trash. Reuters Sustainable Business, https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/united-airlines-unveils-bid-fund-sustainable-aviation-fuel-use-2021-04-13/
- 8:35 Gevo, Praj to commercialize sustainable aviation fuel in India. Biomass Magazine, http://biomassmagazine.com/articles/17285/gevo-praj-to-commercialize-sustainable-aviation-fuel-in-india
- 8:44 ICAO SAF Initiatives, https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/gfaaf/lists/saafa/view.aspx
- 8:55 Carroll, S. EU considers applying green jet fuel mandate to all departing flights. EURACTIV https://www.euractiv.com/section/aviation/news/eu-considers-applying-green-jet-fuel-mandate-to-all-departing-flights/