SAF: Four ingredients for success

Four ingredients will help Sustainable Aviation Fuel make its mark in business aviation and beyond. And win influential friends. Words: Yves Le Marquand

1 Cost 2 Supply 3 Getting the right blend 4 Consider the name

SAF: Four ingredients for success

Four ingredients will help Sustainable Aviation Fuel make its mark in business aviation and beyond. And win influential friends. Words: Yves Le Marquand

1 Cost

2 Supply

3 Getting the right blend

4 Consider the name

IT IS A PUBLIC relations dream. Simply take millions of tonnes of waste plastic and convert it into Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) for business jets and other aircraft. At a stroke, you help to solve the worldwide plastics problem and change the public’s perception of aviation from being part of the climate change problem into part of the solution. There are four ingredients to success or barriers to overcome; depending on your perspective.

Let’s start with the prize. SAF can cut carbon emissions by up to 80% over the lifecycle of the fuel compared with fossil jet fuel, depending on the sustainable feedstock used, production method and the supply chain to the airport, according to Air BP. And it can also fuel any turbine engine without requiring modifications of any sort.

SAF also delivers improved fuel efficiency of between 1.5%-3%, resulting in higher payload conditions or extended range, according to SAF supplier SkyNRG.

Now back to the barriers. Those are: price, supply, 100% inclusion and, well, the name. Starting with price, from a market penetration perspective, SAF and the technologies producing it require a maturing period in order to cut production costs. In December 2019, a gallon of Jet A fuel cost $2.50 per gallon, while SAF could cost as much as $12 per gallon.

Second, SAF has a supply problem. Air BP, one of the pioneers driving the growth in SAF, predicted before the Covid-19 crisis that 50,000t of SAF will be produced this year. But that’s a microscopic drop in the fuel tank compared with the 278bn litres of jet fuel consumed annually, according to the Air Transport Action Group.

Third, there is the blending problem. At present SAF requires blending with conventional Jet A fuel; typically at the rate of 50% with conventional fuel.

Finally, there may be a problem with SAF’s name. Sustainable aviation fuel gets its name due to the feedstock from which its produced. It has the same characteristics as fossil jet fuel and therefore avoids any requirement for new infrastructure at airports or technical modification to aircraft engines. But it also means combustion creates the same level of emissions. So, how sustainable is sustainable fuel?

The key lies in the ecological sustainability of the feedstock; the source of carbon. SAF, and biofuel in general, can be produced from various feedstocks. Fuel has been produced from plastics, including plastic water bottles, waste oils of biological origin, agricultural residues and non-fossil CO2. However, some biofuels are produced from unsustainable feedstocks, particularly PFAD (Palm Fatty Acid Distillate), impacting the environment even more severely than fossil jet fuel. And the EU voted in 2018 to ban the use of palm oil in European biofuel production by 2020.

Meanwhile in 2017, member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rejected the organisation's scheme to use millions of tonnes of palm oil as feedstock for SAF. The technologies, production facilities and raw materials needed to produce jet fuel from potential sources such as algae, wood and other cellulosic raw materials that the scheme required are in their infancy or have yet to be developed. The most likely option would be palm oil. The ICAO’s proposal would have meant increasing the worldwide production of palm oil, which is widely criticised for its negative environmental impact, by five-fold by 2050.

Market Penetration

So, what can the industry do to increase the market penetration and reduce the cost of SAF? Also, how can owners, operators and pilots know that the SAF in their fuel tanks is truly sustainable?

Air BP’s low carbon commercial development manager, Tom Parsons, told Corporate Jet Investor: “In 2016, we were the first operator to commence commercial supply of SAF through an existing hydrant fuelling system, at Norway’s Oslo Airport, using BP Biojet. To date, Air BP has supplied SAF to 16 locations in six countries. SAF has been used to fuel many different types of aircraft from small private jets to large passenger aircraft.”

The firm has a supply chain in Sweden, from which it supplies locations across Scandinavia. That enabled Air BP to fuel local carrier Braathens Regional Airlines’ Perfect Flight, in May 2019, which cut emissions by 46% compared with regular flights on the same route. Air BP has supplied SAF to around 20 clients, including Delta and Airbus and business jet operators. Commenting before the Covid-19 global pandemic, as mentioned, Air BP expects up to 50,000t of SAF to be produced globally this year; a sign of good progress, it says. But the bulk of production comes from only two commercial-scale producers: Neste and World Energy.

Parsons continued: “We expect current suppliers will increase SAF capacity within the next few years and they have already announced the projects to do this. The key to greater acceptance and deployment of SAF is reduction in costs. Over the long term, that will require investment in advanced technologies to process feedstocks more efficiently at greater scale and investment in the development of sustainable and scalable feedstock options.”

But, in the short-term, interim support from governments and other stakeholders through policy incentives are needed, he said. “This support needs to be part of a long-term framework to give investors the confidence to make the big investments required to grow supply.”

Much of the technology for producing SAF is still new and requires further development for increased efficiency and cost effectiveness. As mentioned earlier, another barrier to overcome is that SAF cannot fuel an aircraft by itself, blending is a necessity. Parsons explained: “Currently, no SAF is supplied as a 100% SAF constituent. SAF can be blended at up to 50% with fossil jet fuel and all quality tests are completed as per a regular jet fuel. Once blended, SAF has the same characteristics as fossil jet fuel. The blend is then re-certified as Jet A or Jet A-1. It can be handled in the same way as a regular jet fuel, so no changes are required in the fuelling infrastructure or for aircraft using SAF.” However, Rolls-Royce is testing a new engine which is reported to be capable of using 100% SAF.

SAF also costs a lot more than fossil jet fuel. Parsons said that is due to a combination of the current availability of sustainable feedstocks and the continuing development of new production technologies. As the technology matures, it will become more efficient and so will become less costly for customers. “We are seeing increased uptake of SAF as our customers and their passengers increasingly recognise and value the benefits of the emission reductions.”

Scandinavian fuel producer, Neste, uses about 10 raw materials to create a biofuel feedstock. Each of these materials is certified under the International Sustainability Carbon Certification (ISCC) and can therefore generate carbon credits. Lana Van Marter, renewable aviation commercial development manager at Neste, explained: “For example, in California there is the Low Carbon Fuel Standard [LCFS], and federally, here in the US there is the Renewable Fuel Standard [RFS]. That means this fuel will attain a lower price when supplied in those areas. Right now, we know it has a higher price because it is not so widely produced. But because of the incentives we have now and because it is certified, it can generate credit.”

Building the future, as work continues on phase two of the bioenergy plant. The plant will transform municipal solid waste into transportation fuels including SAF.

(L to R) Jim Macias, President and CEO of Fulcrum BioEnergy, and David Gilmour, BP Vice President – Technology, Commercialisation and Ventures, review progress over an optical sorter at the Sierra BioFuels plant near Reno, Nevada, USA.

“SAF can be blended at up to 50% with fossil jet fuel.”

Book and claim system

One feature being adopted by some operators and airports is a ‘book and claim’ system. While a physical supply chain is being built, this system drives demand by enabling the purchase of traditional fuel at the SAF price creating funds for further investment in SAF elsewhere in the world. Similar to a green energy tariff, the more people sign up, the greater the level of investment in renewable sources and, in turn, its stake on the market.

For example, Jet Aviation is running such a system at its US bases. While it does not currently offer SAF at airports such as Bedford or Teterboro in New Jersey, it does at Van Nuys in California. The scheme enables fuel consumers at those locations to opt-in and claim SAF environmental benefits. So, for each gallon of conventional fuel purchased at an airport not supplying SAF, an equivalent amount of conventional fuel will be replaced with sustainable equivalent on flights departing from Jet Aviation’s Van Nuys location.

It’s an idea supported by Miles Thomas, Farnborough Airport’s head of Sustainability & Planning. He would welcome the adoption of a book and claim system in Europe. “It's certainly something we're looking to,” he told Corporate Jet Investor. “I don't know of anybody doing that yet in the UK. This is the first I've spoken about the topic. It is certainly something we would consider, if it can be robustly quantified and demonstrated.”

Thomas continued: “SAF needs to be something that we can integrate into our normal supply. But, if it's a part of normal supply, that means everybody has it, which means to me, unilateral buying, whereby everybody has an understanding. For that to happen, there needs to be standardisation, regulation and legislation that cover all the aspects that are required for storing it, delivering it, how it's blended, etc. I've heard the 70:30 figure [referring to blending] a lot and the 50:50 figure. But there needs to be that absolute clarity; all of those need to come together.”

It’s a big a challenge. According to the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), worldwide flights produced 895m tons of CO2 in 2018. Parsons said: “There is real commitment from the industry to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment, but governments also need to create the right policies to accelerate the growth of SAF. Increasing production requires long-term policy certainty to reduce investment risks, as well as a focus on the research, development and commercialisation of improved production technologies and innovative sustainable feedstocks.” Industry cooperation and greater collaboration is key to SAF’s success, said Parsons. That is both economic and ecological success. Air BP has signed collaborations with two companies that do not involve the use of palm oil in their SAF feedstocks, which from an ecological standpoint ensures the viability of SAF’s sustainable name. “In 2018, we signed an agreement with leading renewable fuel producer Neste, which produces sustainable aviation fuel made from non-palm oil based used cooking oil and other wastes and residues. Through this collaboration we are developing new SAF supply chains.”

A book and claim system for SAF is proving increasingly popular with some North American operators.

Strategic partnership

In 2016, Air BP created a strategic partnership with Fulcrum BioEnergy with an initial investment of $30m. The Californian company is building its first plant in Reno, Nevada, which will produce sustainable transport fuel made from household waste. Fulcrum intends to construct additional facilities and ultimately plans to supply Air BP with over 50m US gallons of SAF per year.

Neste was established as an oil refinery, using fossil fuel feedstocks, based in Espoo, near Helsinki in Finland. But now 50% of its production is centred around biofuel. Globally, it has five facilities completed or in construction for SAF production and produces 100,000t a year for the US and European markets. It has a facility in Singapore, with another under construction. Once completed Neste estimates it will produce 440m gallons of SAF per year from its southeast Asia facility.

So, with supply chains in their infancy and global availability growing slowly, industry collaboration appears key if SAF is to become widely available to fuel business jets and their bigger sisters; commercial airliners and cargo carriers. Given global co-operation, determination and government help, it’s not unfeasible to imagine a world where business jets, and other aircraft, were fueled solely by SAF, or by SAF blends. Then, private jets fueled by SAF may SAF made from recycled plastics may be some time off. But who knows? If that does happen, it could make even the veteran broadcaster and vocal anti-plastics campaigner David Attenborough smile. ■

CJI Connect

Tom Parsons

Low carbon commercial development manager | Air BP

+44 (0) 1932 762 000

[email protected]

Lana Van Marter

Commercial development manager renewable aviation | Neste

+358 50 458 5076

[email protected]

Miles Thomas

Head of Sustainability & Planning

Farnborough Airport

Yves Le Marquand, Reporter, Corporate Jet Investor

Yves Le Marquand, Reporter, Corporate Jet Investor