United Airlines flew a full-sized plane carrying passengers from Chicago to Washington, D.C., Dec. 1 with a single engine powered 100 percent by fuel made from corn sugar.
According to the airline, it was a historic first. Though other international carriers — including Air Canada — have flown using a blend of traditional and renewables-based fuels, United said its use of a 100 per cent plant-based fuel developed by Virent, a subsidiary of U.S.-based Marathon Petroleum was a first for a commercial flight.
Faced with the global climate crisis, it is now time to find a solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry.
Scientists, technology startup founders and fossil fuel giants all around the world are competing to become the main suppliers of what has become known as “sustainable air fuel,” or SAF.
It’s a bit like the Wild West. There are companies trying get started, there are companies maturing technologies and there are technologies trying make the leap to commercial before their time is up,” said David Bressler from the University of Alberta. His advanced-stage research on the production of jetfuel from waste fats was awarded a federal grant of almost $3 million last year.
“But eventually, you’re going see someone emerge in this space. I’m quite certain, who has fundamentally strong business models.
It is difficult to decarbonize air travel
Experts believe that air travel is responsible for 2 percent of global carbon emissions. However, it is one of the most difficult sectors in which to decarbonize. Because of the distances involved and the enormous power required, electrification is not an option.
While technically feasible, hydrogen-powered aircraft are still far away from becoming a reality.
Nevertheless, the global aviation industry has already committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
With the expected growth in air travel demand, the International Air Transport Association estimates a “business-as-usual” trajectory would see 21.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by aviation over the next 29 year.
(For perspective, global energy-related CO2 emissions were approximately 33 gigatonnes in 2019.)
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SAF is the reason why the industry has been banking on it. Although it doesn’t eliminate carbon emissions, it is a lower carbon solution because it is made from renewable materials like used cooking oils, organic municipal refuse, or even algae.
SAF still has a low carbon footprint, which varies depending on how it is produced and the supply chain that gets it to the airport. It can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 85 percent compared to conventional jet fuel. SAF is also a “drop in” fuel that doesn’t require any modifications to aircraft or special infrastructure at airports.
The industry has set a goal for 2.5 billion gallons SAF to be produced by 2025.
However, there are many challenges ahead. With only 20 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel produced and used globally last year, it is still a young industry.
Jimmy Samartzis is the chief executive of LanzaJet. The technology company uses ethanol from corn or sugarcane to produce SAF. “So there is a lot to do to achieve the industry’s goals.”
Suncor commits to building a production facility
LanzaJet is an Illinois-based spinoff of LanzaTech. It already has a demonstration facility in Georgia for sustainable aviation fuel production. The company plans to start commercial operations in the area in 2022.
The company also has strong Canadian connections. One of its founding investors, along with Japanese trading and investment company Mitsui & Co., is Calgary-based Suncor Inc.
To help LanzaJet, the energy giant made a $15 million equity investment.
Suncor’s vice President for low-carbon fuels and offsets Andrea Decore said that Suncor supplies conventional jetfuel to the Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary airports.
She stated that sustainable aviation fuel would be in high demand one day. “We started to hear it from customers.”
Suncor, as a founding partner, has committed to building and running a commercial production plant somewhere in North America for LanzaJet.
Decore stated that the company has already begun the design and engineering phases of the facility, which will cost approximately $450 million. It will be located in Vancouver or Edmonton, Montreal, Montreal or Sarnia.
Decore stated that if economics permit, multiple plants could be built. The first plant could be operational by 2025. “We’re looking at a 60 million gallon-per-year plant — at least one, and maybe up to five.”
Prof. Says that cost is not the only barrier.
However, one major sticking point is that right now, the cost of SAF remains much higher than conventional jet fuel — around US$6 a gallon, compared to less than US$2 per gallon for conventional, Decore said.
She stated that government support, such as cost-sharing agreements, grant programs, and credits (such California’s tax credits) will be needed until the industry matures.
“A lot of these technologies are the first of their kind — they’re not economic, stand-alone,” Decore said. “Credits will be crucial to make it possible, because there is a limit on what the flying customer can bear.”
Bressler, an U of A professor, said that cost isn’t the only obstacle. Bressler said that the sheer size of the aviation industry and the amount of fuel required to reduce its carbon footprint are daunting.
Bressler stated that some airports already mix in two to three percent SAF. “But 100 per cent completion? How do you scale that much? This is a supply problem and a capital investment problem —it’s not a technology problem.”