IBioIC’s Senior Business Development Co-ordinator, Steve Asiala, says that Scotland is ideally placed to develop sustainable aviation fuels after attending the “Flightplan for Sustainable Aviation” conference in Edinburgh recently.

How much of a problem is flying?

Recent reports suggest that, in pockets of the world, increased awareness around the adverse environmental outcomes of flying is leading to “flight shame”, and commitments to rail-only travel. Are these trends justified?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a crystal-clear answer as to the scope of the problem; there is some murkiness due to the way number are recorded and reported. Estimates vary, but they suggest that travel by air contributes to somewhere between 1.5% and 5% of global CO2 emissions, and 6.3% in the UK per a 2005 estimate. Some will contend that these are under-estimates, and some over-, but the actionable take away is that if we are to move toward net zero emissions by 2050, air travel and sustainable aviation fuels must be a part of the plan.

The conference, which was hosted by the Low-Carbon Jet Fuel consortium (LCJF) and the KTN Sustainable Aviation Fuels Special Interest Group (SAF SIG) at Panmure House in Edinburgh on 14 June, heard from experts in the SAF sector, provided a forum for discussion on how the UK can develop its SAF capacity, shared ideas and identified opportunities for collaboration and funding.

The Challenges

Waste oils and fats are the most TRL ready feedstocks for SAF, but probably the least abundant when compared to municipal solid waste (MSW), biomasses, and sugars.

For better or worse, hydrocarbons are really good at storing energy for their weight. Planes powered by (renewable) electricity may be one way of tackling transportation emissions, but it might be a while before we move away from hydrocarbons for aviation purposes.

If hydrocarbon use for aviation is unavoidable for the next 5, 10, or 30 years, the least we can do is continue to progress, de-risk, and buy into opportunities to develop fuels in a more sustainable fashion, and it’s here that Scotland has an opportunity to lead the way.

Scotland’s Opportunity

Scotland has an abundance of wind, tidal and solar energy resources and frequently produces more than is needed. This excess energy could be diverted to perform water electrolysis, a process which generates hydrogen and oxygen gasses from water.

Both Jon Hansen of Haldor Topsoe and Prof Peter Edwards, of the University of Oxford, spoke about the feasibility of using renewable power to generate hydrogen via electrolysis. The hydrogen produced could then be combined with carbon from varied sources, such as MSW, biomass, sugars, and gasses, and a catalyst to produce SAFs.

Scotland has a ready-made opportunity here, with significant volumes of biomass and carbon-containing waste and by-products, including biogenic CO2.

In his talk, Dan Walker of Thomas Cook highlighted that pricing concerns may soon force airlines’ hands and drive demand for sustainable fuels. Jet-A from fossil fuels is currently cheaper than sustainable alternatives, though there is always uncertainty around the future price of fossil-based fuels; if— some would say when— the full operational costs of fossil fuels (including the price carbon emissions) rise, this gap is expected to close dramatically, making SAF significantly more attractive.

With British Airways also restating their commitment to global goals of improving efficiency by 1.5%, stabilizing emissions (read: reversing emissions growth), and reduction of emissions by 50% by 2050, it’s clear that the industry is ready to embrace the shift to SAF.

Existing Facilities

Currently, there is only one commercial SAF production site, World Energy. Many others are on the cusp— Fulcrum, Red Rock, Total, and Neste. Amsterdam-based SkyNRG have recently announced an new initiative with KLM and SHV Energy to build a commercial scale plant based on converting HEFA (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids) from waste oils and fats to fuels.

There is also evidence of buy-in from the International Civil Aviation Organization via the CORSIA program, which seeks to cut carbon emissions through tech, operations, and infrastructure improvements and achieve carbon-neutral growth beyond 2020. Further, conversations around fast-tracking for ASTM approval and certification so that fuels can be rolled out into use mean that things are moving fast.

You might even say the sector is approaching take-off speed.

Steve Asiala
Senior Business Development Coordinator

SAF supply chain development report by KTN, Sustainable Aviation and Chris Lewis Fuels Consultancy.