Projected sustainable aviation fuel uptake by 2025 could be doubled with government support, says IATA
The Virgin Atlantic biofuel flight in February 2008 attracted huge media interest
Tue 27 Feb 2018 – To coincide with the tenth anniversary of the first-ever biofuel flight, IATA has set out its aims for one billion passengers to fly on aircraft powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) blends by 2025, but only if supported by government policy. The demonstration flight in 2008 by a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 from London Heathrow to Amsterdam Schiphol used 500 gallons of biofuel sourced from coconut and babassu nut oils in the jet fuel blend (see article). The flight showed the technical viability of using drop-in biofuels and since then the threshold of 100,000 SAF flights was passed in 2017, with IATA expecting one million flights during 2020. Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic is expecting to carry out its first commercial biofuel flight later this year, pending approval of the waste gas to jet fuel product developed by its partner LanzaTech.
“The momentum for sustainable aviation fuels is now unstoppable,” claimed IATA DG Alexandre de Juniac, although he acknowledged the 2025 target would be hard to achieve without governments setting a framework to incentivise production in the same way as they do for low-carbon automotive fuels.
IATA said steps were needed to provide loan guarantees and capital grants for production facilities; support for SAF demonstration plants and supply chain research and development; and a harmonisation of transport and energy policies that was coordinated with involvement from agriculture and military departments.
On the present uptake trajectory, IATA estimates half a billion passengers could fly on a SAF-blended flight by 2025 but with effective government policies to help scale-up production, it believes this number could be doubled.
The association, which represents some 280 airlines worldwide, pointed out that a number of its members – including Cathay Pacific, FedEx Express, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Qantas and United – had already made significant investments by forward-purchasing 1.5 billion gallons of SAF. In addition, airports in Oslo, Stockholm, Brisbane and Los Angeles had started mixing SAF with the general fuel supply.
Accepting that some land transport biofuels had been criticised over environmental concerns, de Juniac said the airline industry was determined only to use truly sustainable sources for its alternative fuels.
“The industry is clear, united and adamant that we will never use a sustainable fuel that upsets the ecological balance of the planet or depletes its natural resources,” he pledged. An IATA infographic states its members would not use fuels sourced from palm oil.
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic claims its partnership with LanzaTech to create a commercially viable sustainable jet fuel from industrial waste gases and other waste streams “is on the verge of a major breakthrough”.
Since the launch in 2011, LanzaTech has raised hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, secured funding towards five commercial ethanol plants – the first stage in the conversion process, from which each gallon of ethanol produces half a gallon of jet fuel – and produced 4,000 gallons of its renewable fuel for testing purposes. It reports the fuel has so far performed well under the rigorous ASTM testing and review processes. The airline says it “fully intends” to fly with the fuel as soon as it is qualified for use on commercial flights, which it hopes will be later this year.
The two partners are also calling on the UK government to back the new technology through providing access to existing low-carbon fuel incentives that have recently been extended to include renewable jet fuels produced from municipal waste streams, although do not explicitly include fuels from waste gases (see article). De-risking support for a first-of-a-kind commercial plant in the UK would enable the product to be quickly brought to market and at a price on a par with traditional jet fuels, they say, and provide wider benefits.
“The project is now tantalising close to becoming a reality, with the potential to deliver massive carbon savings as well economic and technological benefits to the UK,” commented Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger.
Added Dr Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech: “The aviation sector’s commitment to achieving a low-carbon future is evidenced by its investment in the development of sustainable jet fuel supply chains. Remarkably, due to this commitment, we have gone from ‘it can’t be done’ to over 100,000 commercial flights on low-carbon jet fuel in under 10 years. This is tremendous progress and we are thrilled to partner with Virgin Atlantic, the airline that first showed synthetic, low-carbon jet fuel flight was possible.”
The Chicago-based biotech company estimates its process could be retrofitted to 65% of the world’s steel mills, with a potential for producing around 15 billion gallons of renewable jet fuel annually, representing just under 19% of the total worldwide consumption of all aviation fuel.
Virgin Group’s founder Sir Richard Branson said the search for a sustainable aviation fuel had been a longstanding challenge for airlines and fuel companies but tremendous progress had been made in the decade since the first biofuel flight.
“We have invested in and worked with a number of fuel companies over the years and today we are partnered with LanzaTech because of its impressive sustainability profile and commercial potential,” he said.