“The complexity is immense.”
These are the words spoken by Rob Miller, director of Whittle Laboratory at Cambridge University, during The Economist’s ‘Future of Aviation’ session.
The sector has been remarkably stable for 40 years, and systems have been developed to ensure continued stability, but if we want to unlock change and completely decarbonise aviation, we need to bring together science and business to imagine a new future.
The aviation industry’s target to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050 is a daunting goal, especially in an industry with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels. While there are numerous initiatives to develop electrical engines and hydrogen as an alternative fuel these ideas are yet to receive much commercial traction.
The solution might lie closer to home. Cooking oil and agricultural waste could hold the key to dramatically reducing aircraft emissions. Both are being used to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), a propellant that mimics the characteristics and specifications of regular jet fuel.
While it is important to be clear that SAF is not a truly zero-carbon solution, it is a steppingstone to a substantially cleaner aviation sector. Put simply, SAF is produced by blending conventional jet fuel with renewable hydrocarbons which can then be used on aircraft without any technical modifications. ATF produces up to 80% less CO2 over its lifecycle compared to conventional fuel.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel in 2022.
This year has seen a strong start for SAF. There has been a real buzz around its environment-friendly credentials, further boosted by wide uptake from aircraft manufacturers and airlines around the world.
Regional aircraft manufacturer ATR recently performed a series of flights with 100% SAF in one engine. Virgin Atlantic has already inked a deal with Finnish oil refiner Neste Oyi to purchase 2.5 million litres of SAF. Singapore Airlines and its low-cost affiliate Scoot will power flights originating from Changi Airport with blended SAF.
Closer to home, Alfanar, a Saudi Arabian energy producer, will invest £1 billion to produce SAF in Teesside, while the UK Government has committed a £180 million injection to support the development of SAF.
While the Government’s target of enabling the UK’s aviation industry to utilise 10% SAF by 2030 is quite modest, the projected scope for the SAF industry in the UK is massive. The industry is estimated to deliver over 20,000 jobs by 2028 and could generate over £2.5 billion for the UK economy and help save 3.6 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2038.
The future of sustainable air travel.
While hydrogen is often touted as the silver bullet for decarbonising the heavy transport sector, its development as a viable and cost-effective fuel source will take considerable time. Plus, it is already battling a healthy amount of scepticism around whether it is truly ‘green’.
SAF, however, can seize the advantage and position itself as a viable, scalable, and cost-effective pathway towards significantly paring emissions for the aviation sector.
While airlines are currently allowed to use a fuel blend containing not more than 50% SAF, numerous demonstrations have used 100% SAF with no dips in performance or safety. Most importantly, existing aircraft engines do not need retrofitting to burn SAF.
Though this type of fuel has much going for it, it is still in need of a concerted push. A lack of incentives to drive uptake, prohibitive costs in comparison to regular ATF, and a lack of refineries operating at commercial scale, are some of the main hurdles holding back widespread adoption of SAF.
However, proactive actions taken by the UK and the EU’s ReFuelEU initiative will help mainstream SAF while legislative amendments like the Emissions Trading System (ETS) will make offsetting fossil fuel emissions unmanageable, further smoothening SAF’s path.