Chasing the ‘green’ dream: a brief snapshot on the implementation of SAFs and e-fuels in the aviation industry
Keri A Kitson
Port-of-Spain and Cunupia, Trinidad and Tobago
On a recent outbound trip from New York City via John F Kennedy Airport, I discovered firsthand, two new elements that were recently implemented in the post-Covid 19 pandemic commercial air travel experience. The first element was the more comprehensive roll-out of the additional security feature of biometric onboarding of passengers at their respective gates for international flights. The second element was more subtle, since most passengers remained blissfully unaware of it as they travelled to their respective destinations, and I was only alerted to it by chance while flipping through JetBlue’s onboard viewing options. This element is equally as impressive as observing the biometric onboarding process in real time, as it highlighted the preliminary implementation of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) by airline carriers like JetBlue. It is the first visibly concrete step taken by the aviation industry to incorporate into its typical business operations its commitment to align with the United Nations Paris Agreement goal to combat global warming and, by extension, moves beyond merely offsetting carbon as per the Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).
According to the short film directed by Ondi Timoner entitled Future Forward: The Future of Flight, instead of using conventional jet fuel that’s derived from fossil hydrocarbons, by blending conventional jet fuel with the SAF, aircrafts are able to substantially decrease their carbon dioxide (CO²) emissions during flights by as much as 80 per cent in some cases. At present, the aviation industry still has a rather sizeable carbon footprint, as this sector alone accounts for approximately three per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions according to Edelman Global Advisory. Pre-Covid-19 pandemic, international travel saw approximately four billion travellers on a yearly basis, and projections by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expected this figure to increase to 111 per cent in 2025.
In order for airlines to achieve their commitment to ‘Fly Net Zero by 2050’ undertaken at the 77th IATA Annual General Meeting in 2021, much work at all levels needs to be undertaken to decarbonise this industry. This work according to IATA includes: ‘concrete actions and clear timelines, specifically including: fuel-producing companies providing large scale, cost-competitive sustainable aviation fuels to the market; governments and air navigation service providers eliminating inefficiencies in air traffic management and airspace infrastructure; aircraft and engine manufacturers producing radically more efficient airframe and propulsion technologies; and airport operators providing the needed infrastructure to supply SAF, at cost, and in a cost-effective manner’. As this list demonstrates, a comprehensive cross-collaborative strategy has to be implemented throughout the industry if it hopes to achieve its goals. It should be noted that in July 2022, the UK government’s Department for Transport rolled out its Jet Zero Strategy, which provides a comprehensive strategy to decarbonise the industry and is worth reviewing.
What are SAFs and e-fuels?
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) otherwise known as bio-jet fuel or renewable jet fuel is a carbon-reducing alternative solution that can be defined as ‘a “drop-in” fuel blended with up to 50% conventional jet fuel requiring no aircraft modifications’. According to the non-governmental organisation European Federation for Transport and Environment, there are presently first generation and second generation biofuels available in the commercial marketplace from companies like Finnish company NESTE, which is currently the largest producer of biofuel. First generation biofuels otherwise known as the conventional biofuels are ‘produced from crops grown on agricultural land’. In contrast, second generation biofuels can be manufactured from ‘wastes, residues or novel feedstocks such as algae’. There is also what appears to be a third generation of SAF that is emerging and is derived from ‘carbon-rich waste gases’ such as ‘waste carbon monoxide from industrial processes captured and upgraded with bacteria into ethanol for easy conversion into “alcohol-to-jet” SAF’. In a recent IATA AGM presentation, an update on SAFs was provided and during that update, the SAF Classification was broken down into the following categories:
- ‘1st Generation Feedstocks (Food Grade Fats and Oils): Canola/Repressed Oil; Palm Oil and Derivatives; Corn; Soybean Oil and Sunflower Oil;
- 2nd Generation Feedstocks (Waste Fats, Oils & Greases [FOGs]): Used Cooking Oil; Inedible Animal Fats and Tallow; Trap (Yellow) Grease and Fatty Acid Distillates; and
- 3rd Generation Feedstocks (Bio/Agriculture Wastes and Residue): Wet Wastes; Algae Oils; Forestry & Agri Residues; Food Waste and Municipal Solid Waste.’
Presently, only those SAFs produced through the approved Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA-SPK) and the Fischer-Tropsch Synthesised Paraffinic Kerosene (FT-SPK) processes are available on a commercial scale.
Electrofuels or e-fuels in contrast to SAFs, are ‘clean, carbon-neutral fuels produced from renewable, green hydrogen and recycled carbon dioxide’. In other words, the e-fuels are synthetic alternatives to their fossil fuel counterparts that fall into two categories: ‘“power-to-gas” – synthetic methane and ammonia; and “power-to-liquid” – synthetic methanol, crude oil, kerosene and diesel’. Much akin to SAFs, the e-fuels are adaptable to existing infrastructure and have a much lower carbon footprint than their fossil fuel-based counterparts. Unfortunately, at present e-fuel production on a commercial scale is not available. In fact, the first industrial plant to produce e-fuels was only opened in 2021 in Chile, and another is due to become operationalised in Norway in 2024. Hence, SAFs will continue to be the most viable option for the aviation sector in the foreseeable future.
It should be noted at this juncture, that according to an article by Magdalena Smenda, SAFs and e-fuels continue to be much costlier than conventional jet fuel. So, unless more governments step in to subsidise the cost to the aviation industry much like the United States did with the introduction of tax incentives under its Inflation Reduction Act in 2022; or in the alternative, the conversion technology to create these SAFs and e-fuels becomes cheaper; the transition by airline carriers worldwide may not be as seamless as it ought to be if the Fly Net Zero goal is to be realistically achieved by 2050.
What policies, mandates and legislation are guiding this net zero effort by the aviation sector?
A glimmer of hope has arisen, as the European Council and the European Parliament provisionally agreed to the ReFuelEU Aviation Initiative in April 2023. This initiative was part of the ‘Fit for 55’ package proposed in July 2022 and has a three-pronged approach that tackles the increased use, distribution and provision of appropriate infrastructure for SAFs by aviation fuel suppliers, aircraft operators and airports. The United States introduced the US Sustainable Skies Act in its Congress in May 2021 that aimed to provide incentives to use SAF. However, as of the time of this article, it has not yet been passed. Nonetheless, in August 2022, the US Senate did enable under the Inflation Reduction Act, tax incentive provisions for five years to enable an increase in SAF production. Moreover, countries like France, Norway and Sweden presently have SAF-blending mandates in place. While India is currently developing a mandate to use one per cent SAF in its carriers by 2025 and has already submitted its long-term low emission development strategy to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Non-governmental organisations such as the Latin American Energy Organization (OLADE) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) have also entered into the foray, as OLADE and IATA recently signed off on a memorandum of understanding in December 2022 to boost SAF in Latin America. In fact, in May 2023, Colombia was selected by Bio-D for the construction of a SAF production plant.
Other countries outside the EU bloc and the US, such as China (which has the world’s second largest aviation sector behind the US), have not implemented any effective government level directives to address the use or promotion of SAF by China at this time. The Civil Aviation Administration of China stepped into the foray by indicating its objective for the consumption of 50,000 tonnes of SAFs by 2025 but no comprehensive guideline has been forthcoming to date as to how it plans to achieve this goal. To date, Australia like China, has also not mandated the use of SAFs.
As time progresses, it is this author’s opinion that more and more countries will implement directives to enable SAF usage or production, in order to meet their respective international obligations to assist in combatting climate change.
The global aviation industry has taken a positive step with the use of SAFs to assist in decarbonising its sector and hence combatting climate change in a real way. Nevertheless, there are many challenges that still need to be addressed and will be seen more clearly in time. Challenges such as refueling in countries that do not have readily available SAF; or lack of government initiatives to ensure a more comprehensive roll-out of renewable fuel and viable infrastructure at airports for the aviation sector; or limited investments in conversion technology so that the cost of purchasing SAFs commercially would not be as exorbitant in comparison to conventional jet fuel, are among some of the issues that are being, and will continue to be, faced by the aviation industry. Yet, these challenges are not insurmountable, and as the aviation industry chases this ‘green’ dream with a little help from tech and some cross-collaborative support, the ultimate winners will in time, turn out to be ordinary travellers like you and me.
 Edelman Global Advisory, Sustainable Aviation Fuels: A plausible way to decarbonize the aviation sector? (Edelman Global Advisory:2023), Available at: www.edelmanglobaladvisory.com/insights/sustainable-aviation-fuels Accessed on 18 June 2023.
 International Air Transport Association (IATA), Net zero carbon 2050 resolution - IATA, (IATA.org: June 2023) Available at www.iata.org/en/iata-repository/pressroom/fact-sheets/fact-sheet----iata-net-zero-resolution Accessed on 20 June 2023.
 Department for Transport, Jet zero strategy: Delivering net zero aviation by 2050, (GOV.UK: 2022) Available at www.gov.uk/government/publications/jet-zero-strategy-delivering-net-zero-aviation-by-2050 Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 AIRBUS, Sustainable aviation fuel Advancing the ecosystem for a proven alternative fuel, (Airbus.com). Available at www.airbus.com/en/sustainability/respecting-the-planet/decarbonisation/sustainable-aviation-fuel Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 European Federation for Transport and the Environment, The good, bad and the ugly of saf mandates, (Transport & Environment.org) Available at www.transportenvironment.org/discover/the-good-bad-and-the-ugly-of-saf-mandates Accessed on 19 June 2023.
 US Department of Energy. Sustainable aviation fuels, (Energy.gov) Available at www.energy.gov/eere/bioenergy/sustainable-aviation-fuels Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 Thomsen, Marie Owens. Mistry, Hermant. Block, Alejandro. Media Briefing Update on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), (IATA.org: June 2023) Available at www.iata.org/en/iata-repository/pressroom/presentations/sustainable-aviation-fuel-agm-2023 Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 Bandola, E. HIF Global, LOTHER GRUPPE and eFuel GmbH sign Letter of Intent to accelerate the availability of eFuels in Europe, (HIF Global) Available at https://hifglobal.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/HIF-Global-LOTHER-GRUPPE-and-eFuel-GmbH-sign-Letter-of-Intent-to-accelerate-the-availability-of-eFuels-in-Europe.pdf Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 Smenda, M. SAF and E-fuels: The wild card to fly, (Infra The Mundys Journal). Available at www.infrajournal.com/en/w/aviation-goes-green-reaching-sustainability-goals-with-saf-and-e-fuels Accessed on 19 June 2023.
 European Commission, European Green Deal: new law agreed to cut aviation emissions by promoting sustainable aviation fuels. (European Commission: 2023) Available at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_23_2389 Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 IATA, Fact sheet: EU and US Policy Approaches to advance SAF production.(IATA.org) Available at www.iata.org/contentassets/d13875e9ed784f75bac90f000760e998/fact-sheet---us-and-eu-saf-policies.pdf Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 Joshi, G. SAF in India: What does the roadmap look like? (Simple Flying: May 2023) Available at https://simpleflying.com/saf-in-india-roadmap/#:~:text=Indian%20authorities%20are%20working%20on,million%20liters%20of%20biofuel%20annually Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 Olade. Olade and IATA sign agreement to boost deployment of SAF in Latin America and the Caribbean. (OLADE: 2022) Available at www.olade.org/en/noticias/olade-and-iata-sign-agreement-to-boost-deployment-of-saf-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 Diaz, Pablo, Revolutionizing aviation in Colombia: LATAM Airlines and bio-D partner to produce sustainable fuel, (Aviacionline.com: 2023) Available at www.aviacionline.com/2023/05/revolutionizing-aviation-in-colombia-latam-airlines-and-bio-d-partner-to-produce-sustainable-fuel Accessed on 21 June 2023.
 Yuhan, N. Policy support needed to boost sustainable aviation fuels in China, (China Dialogue: 2023) Available at https://chinadialogue.net/en/transport/china-sustainable-aviation-fuels-policy-support Accessed on 21 June 2023.