September 30, 2022
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(CNN) — There is a small likelihood that your subsequent flight can be powered, at the very least partly, by used cooking oils or agricultural waste.

These are among the many substances of SAF — Sustainable Aviation Fuel — a brand new sort of jet fuel that guarantees to curb carbon emissions by 80% on common, in accordance with IATA, the Worldwide Air Transport Affiliation.

The primary industrial flights using SAF took off in 2011, and it has since grown to change into a key ingredient in making air transport extra sustainable.

The aviation trade has pledged that, by 2050, its international carbon emissions can be half that of what they have been in 2005. It then hopes to achieve web zero, or the whole absence of emissions, as early as a decade after that. That’s an especially bold plan, and one by which SAF accounts for 50% to 75% of the total reduction in emissions, relying on the totally different eventualities that may play out between at times.
And but in 2019 — the final yr of enterprise as standard earlier than the pandemic — SAF accounted for simply 0.1% of all jet fuel used worldwide, according to the World Economic Forum. So why aren’t airlines using extra of it?

Scaling up

Many trendy airplanes want few or no modifications to deal with SAF.

Mario Tama/Getty Photos

SAF is a “drop in” fuel, which suggests it may be used now, in present plane, with little or no modifications.

“This is important and really useful for the aviation trade, as a result of there is no have to put money into new infrastructure or new plane, and it’s nice for airports too, as a result of they’ll use the identical storage and fueling infrastructure — from that perspective, SAF is glorious,” says Andreas Schafer, a professor of vitality and transport at College School London.

In its bid to change into extra sustainable, aviation is additionally taking a look at next-generation applied sciences like hydrogen and electric-powered flight, however these require transformational adjustments that are nonetheless a few years away. As Boeing’s CEO David Calhoun put it, SAF is “the one reply between now and 2050.”

SAF has a low carbon footprint as a result of it’s constructed from waste merchandise, the place the carbon has already been emitted, or from crops that burn up CO2 to develop.

The issue is that it’s at the moment way more costly to supply than common jet fuel, even with immediately’s elevated oil costs.

“There’s no actual enterprise case for the sector to put money into it in the mean time,” explains Schafer, which means that airlines haven’t any incentive to make use of SAF apart from to cut back emissions — however at present costs and amidst a world disaster introduced on by Covid, that is a luxurious they’ll’t afford.

To make the worth go down, manufacturing must ramp up considerably and new varieties of SAF should come to the market.

At this time, most SAF comes within the type of biofuel produced from waste fat similar to used cooking oil, or from oil bushes purposely grown on degraded land. Nonetheless, there is not sufficient of those uncooked supplies proper now to provide the trade at a significant scale.

Powered by trash

Many main airlines have used SAF in industrial or take a look at flights.

Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Photos

Within the close to future, higher-cost biofuel might be produced from agricultural waste merchandise, similar to plant stems or husks, and residues from wooden processing, in addition to non-edible crops grown on goal like miscanthus, just like bamboo.

Even municipal waste, the family trash that usually goes to landfill, has the potential to be become SAF.

Lastly, additional forward, we will make one other sort of SAF known as “energy to liquid.” This methodology makes use of renewable vitality to extract hydrogen from water after which combine it with CO2 taken straight from the air. The consequence is an artificial liquid fuel that is carbon impartial and is available in a doubtlessly infinite provide — sufficient to fulfill the demand of the whole aviation trade.

In accordance to a price evaluation run by Schafer and his workforce, present SAF constructed from waste oils prices at the very least 50% greater than common jet fuel.

The second sort, the higher-cost biofuel, can go for as much as thrice as a lot, and the “energy to liquid” one comes at practically 4 occasions the worth of jet fuel. And that’s based mostly on oil costs of $100 per barrel — the distinction will solely enhance if oil costs return to decrease ranges.

How can we deliver these prices down?

“We have to develop the manufacturing of low-cost biofuels after which make investments into the manufacturing of high-cost ones and energy to liquid,” says Schafer.

“A number of thousand manufacturing crops should be constructed. And that’s not all, since you want the renewable energy era infrastructure for energy to liquid. And that’s gigantic: half the electrical energy produced immediately globally could be required for the aviation sector in 2050. So the size is huge, and we higher get began quickly.”

A difficult future

Qantas boss Alan Joyce has expressed his airline’s dedication to using SAF.

Greg Wooden/AFP/Getty Photos

The primary industrial flight that used a mix of biofuels and common jet fuel was operated by KLM in 2011, however take a look at flights date again to 2008, with Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand among the many earliest adopters.

Since then, many main airlines have used SAF in industrial flights, together with SAS, Lufthansa, Qantas, Alaska and United, amongst others: according to IATA, over 370,000 flights with SAF within the fuel combine have taken off since 2016 alone. Plane and engine producers are additionally conducting exams, signaling a world curiosity. In March 2022, for instance, Airbus flew an A380 for three hours powering one among its Rolls-Royce engines totally with SAF constructed from cooking oil and different waste fat.
Nonetheless, progress has slowed down as a result of pandemic, and the trade’s pre-Covid purpose of reaching 2% use of SAF by 2025 — from 0.1% in 2019 — now appears uncertain.

“We’re actually behind the 2025 purpose and I feel it’s unlikely that we’ll get there naturally,” says Glenn McDonald, an aviation analyst at Aerodynamic Advisory, suggesting that exterior intervention is wanted to make SAF extra enticing, both by way of subsidies that make it cheaper or by way of a carbon tax that makes conventional jet fuel dearer.

It doesn’t assist that aviation is a world and fragmented trade with guidelines and laws that modify from one nation to the subsequent. It’s probably that progress can be uneven: Norway, for instance, has mandated since 2020 that 0.5% of all jet fuel used domestically have to be SAF, a share that should develop to 30% by 2030.

Desire shift

Airbus has flown the A380 superjumbo for 3 hours powered by SAF.


In keeping with McDonald, there are encouraging indicators.

“Airlines are beginning to take it extra significantly as a result of they see a shift in shopper preferences, particularly amongst youthful vacationers, and so they know they should meet these objectives to be able to be a viable trade within the 2050s,” he says.

“A standard chorus we hear within the aerospace and aviation sector is that we don’t need to change into the brand new tobacco trade, the place the enterprise mannequin isn’t aligned with public coverage and shopper attitudes.”

For passengers, the shift to SAF may be totally unnoticeable, as a result of no seen side of a flight is affected by the change in fuel.

Nonetheless, as airlines really feel extra strain to make use of SAF earlier than its value aligns with common jet fuel — no earlier than the 2030s in accordance with the World Financial Discussion board — they may offload a number of the prices on passengers, leading to a rise in fares of as much as 15%, in accordance with Schafer.

“From a shopper perspective, that’s not a lot, however from an airline perspective, it may be, as a result of the profitability of airlines is usually nicely under 15%. So this may trigger extra restructuring out there.”

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