Green jet fuel is here — so why are airlines not using it?

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(CNN) – Your next flight is at least partially powered by used cooking oil or agricultural waste.

This SAF – Sustainable Aviation Fuel – is a new type of jet fuel that promises to reduce carbon emissions by an average of 80%. IATAInternational Air Transport Association.

The first commercial flights using SAF flew in 2011, and have since become a key element in making air transport more sustainable.

The aviation industry has promised that by 2050, its global carbon emissions will halve from 2005 levels. It then hopes to reach a net zero or complete absence of emissions early in the next decade. It is a very ambitious plan, and one that SAF has a stake in 50% to 75% of total reduction in emissionsDepending on the different scenarios that may play between now and then.
And yet in 2019 – the last year of business as usual before the epidemic – SAF accounts for only 0.1% of all jet fuel used worldwide, According to the World Economic Forum. So why don’t airlines use it more?


Many modern airplanes require little or no modification to handle SAF.

Many modern airplanes require little or no modification to handle SAF.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

SAF is a “drop in” fuel, which means it can be used in existing aircraft, with or without modification.

“This is crucial and very beneficial for the aviation industry, as there is no need to invest in new infrastructure or new aircraft, and it is also excellent for airports, as they can use the same storage and fueling infrastructure – in that sense, SAF is excellent, “says Andres Schaefer, professor of energy and transport at University College London.

In its bid to become more sustainable, Aviation is also focusing on next-generation technologies such as hydrogen and electric-powered flight, but it needs adaptive changes that are still many years away. As That’s what Boeing CEO David Callahan saidSAF “is the only answer between now and 2050.”

SAF has a low carbon footprint because it is made from waste products, where carbon has already been emitted or from plants that use CO2.

The problem is that while it is currently more expensive than regular jet fuel, oil prices have risen even today.

“At the moment there is no real business case for the sector to invest in it,” explains Schaefer, meaning that airlines have no incentive to use SAF other than to reduce emissions – but at current prices and the globalization brought by Covid. In the midst of a crisis, it’s a luxury they can’t afford.

For the price to go down, production needs to increase significantly and new types of SAFs have to come into the market.

Today, most SAF waste comes in the form of biofuels produced from fats such as used cooking oils, or oil plants grown purposely on degraded soil. However, at present these raw materials are not sufficient to supply the industry on a meaningful basis.

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Many major airlines have used SAF in commercial or test flights.

Many major airlines have used SAF in commercial or test flights.

Eric Piermont / AFP / Getty Images

In the near future, high-cost biofuels could be produced from agricultural waste products, such as plant stalks or bark, and wood processing residues, as well as inedible plants grown for purposes such as bamboo and miscanthus.

Even municipal waste, household waste that often goes to landfill, is likely to be converted into SAF.

Finally, further, we will be able to create another type of SAF called “Power to Liquid”. This method uses renewable energy to extract hydrogen from water and then mix it with CO2 taken directly from the air. The result is a synthetic liquid fuel that is carbon neutral and potentially comes in an infinite supply – enough to meet the demand of the entire aviation industry.

The current SAF made from waste oil costs at least 50% more than regular jet fuel, according to a cost analysis performed by Schaefer and his team.

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The second type, the high-cost biofuel, can go up to three times as much, and the “power to liquid” jet comes at about four times the cost of fuel. And it’s based on an oil price of $ 100 a barrel – the difference will only get bigger if oil prices return to lower levels.

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How can we bring these costs down?

“We need to expand the production of low-cost biofuels and then invest in the production of high-cost biofuels and power-to-liquid,” says Schaefer.

“Several thousand production plants need to be built. And not only that, because you need renewable power generation infrastructure for power to liquid. And that’s huge: half of the electricity produced globally today will be needed for the aviation sector by 2050. So the scale is enormous. Is, and we’ll get started soon.

A challenging future

Qantas boss Alan Joyce has expressed his airline's commitment to using SAF.

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

Greg Wood / AFP / Getty Images

The first commercial flight using a combination of biofuel and regular jet fuel was operated by KLM in 2011, but test flights date back to 2008, with Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand among the early adopters.

Since then, many major airlines have used SAF on commercial flights, including SAS, Lufthansa, Qantas, Alaska and United, among others: According to IATA, Has flown more than 370,000 flights with SAF in the fuel mix since 2016 alone. Aircraft and engine manufacturers are also conducting tests, indicating a global interest. In March 2022, for example, Airbus flew the A380 for three hours One of its Rolls-Royce engines is powered entirely with SAF made from cooking oil and other waste fats.
However, progress has slowed due to the epidemic, and the industry’s pre-cowardly goal 2% use of SAF by 2025 – from 0.1% in 2019 – now looks suspicious.

“We are definitely behind the 2025 goal and I don’t think we are likely to get there naturally,” says Glenn MacDonald, aviation analyst at Aerodynamic Advisory, who says outside intervention is needed to make SAF more attractive, either through subsidies. Make it cheaper or through the carbon tax that makes conventional jet fuel more expensive.

It does not help that aviation is a global and fragmented industry with rules and regulations that vary from country to country. It is likely that progress will be uneven: Norway, for example, has mandated from 2020 that 0.5% of all jet fuel used domestically be SAF, which should increase to 30% by 2030.

Preference shift

Airbus has flown the A380 Superjumbo for three hours powered by SAF.

Airbus has flown the A380 Superjumbo for three hours powered by SAF.


According to McDonald’s, there are encouraging signs.

“Airlines are starting to take it more seriously as they see changes in customer preferences, especially among young travelers, and they know they will have to meet these targets to become a viable industry in the 2050s,” he says.

“One common thing we hear in the aerospace and aviation sector is that we do not want to be a new tobacco industry, where the business model is not linked to public policy and consumer attitudes.”

For passengers, the transfer to SAF can be completely unclear, as no visible aspect of the flight is affected by the change in fuel.

However, airlines are under increasing pressure to use SAF before its cost is aligned with regular jet fuel – not earlier than 2030, according to the World Economic Forum – they may offload some of the costs to passengers, which could result in higher fares. Is. Up to 15%, according to Schafer.

“From a consumer perspective, it’s not high, but from an airline perspective, it could be, because airlines’ profitability is usually less than 15%. So this will lead to further restructuring of the market.”

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