Sustainable Aviation Fuel – Net Zero CO2 emissions by 2050

4-minute read

The record-high prices of oil and commodities continue to bring challenges to a civil aviation sector worldwide that’s been hit hard by COVID. The industry has also been impacted by the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine in ways not seen for many years.

However, the industry still does its best not to forget about the environmental challenges as it pursues to progress towards the Flying Net Zero CO2 project.

According to last month’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, climate breakdown is accelerating rapidly; many of the impacts will be more severe than predicted. Nowhere will be spared.

“The scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet,” said Hans-Otto Pörtner, a co-chair of the working group producing this report. There is only a small window of time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The urgency of action is clear. The air transport industry has committed to Net Zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and reports regularly on the developments, breakthroughs and challenges of the collective action decided by the industry and governments on the road to #FlyNetZero.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)

To reach Net Zero by 2050, the aviation sector will require around 450 billion litres of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Across the industry, there is evidence that work is ongoing to develop the existing knowledge, availability and technology to deliver on SAF.

There are many developments in this area:

• In collaboration with Braathens Regional Airlines and Neste, the aircraft manufacturer ATR performed a series of flight tests with 100% SAF in one engine, an interesting development as the current legal limit is 50% blend. Meanwhile, Turkish Airlines flew for the first time on SAF using its Airbus A321 between Istanbul and Paris.

• In the US, Boeing announced the largest procurement of SAF by an aerospace manufacturer, buying 2 million gallons of 30% SAF blend from EPIC Fuels.

• In Asia, Nestle will start a Singapore sustainable aviation fuel plant by Q1 2023. Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Safran and Singapore Airlines have signed the Global Sustainable Aviation Fuel Declaration at the Singapore Air Show.

• In Japan, the government aims to have airlines replace 10% of their jet fuel with eco-friendlier alternatives by 2030.

• Airbus and CFM signed an agreement to collaborate on a hydrogen demonstrator to fly by the middle of the decade. Airbus have stated their aim to have a commercial hydrogen plane available by 2035, so this collaboration marks a crucial step towards zero-emissions flight.

• HSBC have announced investing $100 million in Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, a program within the larger Breakthrough Energy network founded by Bill Gates, to support the growth of climate critical technologies – direct air capture, clean hydrogen, long-duration energy storage, and sustainable aviation fuels.

“Sustainable fuel is not a research project that we are doing on the side. It is happening. We are flying today with SAF blends.” said Gurhan Andac, GE Aviation engineer working on sustainable fuels.

The industry is also focusing on the algae, explored as a viable feedstock for renewable fuels for more than a decade; however, it has yet to transition into regular commercial production successfully.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel - Net Zero CO2 emissions by 2050 2

Algae turn sunlight, water and fertilizer into fuel. A promising characteristic of micro or macroalgae is the small geographic footprint required relative to the amount of fuel that can be produced.

But it is important to note that substantial energy is still required to convert algae feedstock into bio-oil, which can hinder the emissions reduction potential and has historically made algae-based renewable fuel expensive.

Berat Z. Haznedaroglu is an assistant professor at The Institute of Environmental Sciences at Bogazici University (BU) in Turkey. He is currently the director for İstanbul Microalgae Biotechnologies Research and Development Center and vice director for The Center for Life Sciences and Technologies.

Can you briefly describe the algae jet fuel project you lead?

We are working on what the industry refers to as HEFA – Hydrotreated Esters and Fatty Acids – Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) using algae-based lipids generated and processed in an integrated biorefinery.

The biorefinery, established at Bogazici University’s satellite campus near the Black Sea, is 100% powered by wind energy. Carbon dioxide captured during algae cultivation enables us to generate a net-carbon negative SAF, the first of its kind in Europe and elsewhere.

We will be doing our first demo flight with our project partner Turkish Airlines this year.

What are the advantages of algae as a potential fuel for aircraft?

Our algae-based SAF has better thermal densities, lower freezing points and lower aromatics compared to Jet A-1, enabling fuel savings and much cleaner exhaust emissions.

There are also several sustainability advantages as algae are photosynthetic organisms capable of growing under sunlight and utilizing waste CO2, contributing to the overall aims of climate mitigation efforts.

They are not food crops and do not compete with other feedstocks in terms of arable land (they are grown in engineered reactors or controlled ponds) and freshwater resources (we use marine algae species). They grow much faster and contain high lipid contents.

What are the biggest challenges to scaling up algae fuels as a major contributor to cutting emissions?

Algae require certain geographic features as lots of sunlight and warm temperatures are needed. The density of biomass per unit volume is relatively small; therefore, you need to generate a lot of biomass to achieve meaningful product yields. As they grow in water, harvesting is challenging and costly.

What’s the most surprising thing you have discovered during the project?

We were surprised to see that we can generate a better civil aviation fuel with respect to both fuel specs and exhaust emissions, essentially a more sustainable and higher quality bio-kerosene.

I can see that we will be able to switch to 100% SAFs (algae and other feedstocks) in the near future when we demonstrate the economic viability through carbon-negative production.

Source: International Air Transport Association (IATA)

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