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Back in 2008, Virgin Atlantic made history after flying a Boeing 747 between London and Amsterdam partly powered by a biofuel made from Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts. Although Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson hailed the event as a "vital breakthrough", many people dismissed it as just another one of his marketing stunts. And they were right. In November 2023, Virgin Atlantic will operate the world's first transatlantic flight powered entirely by green aviation fuels in yet another one-off demo. 

A decade and a half since Virgin Atlantic's 2008 demo, only five airports have regular biofuel distribution today (Bergen, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Oslo and Stockholm). On a global level, aviation biofuels account for less than 1% of the 1.5 billion barrels of aviation fuels, or ~15% of global oil supply, that commercial airlines burn through in a typical year. Indeed, the global aviation industry is a leading polluter; it would rank among the top 10 emitters if it were a country.

But this is about to change in Europe. 

On Wednesday, EU lawmakers approved new rules that require at least 2% of jet fuel used by airlines to be sustainable as of 2025, with that share to increase every five years to hit 70% by 2050. The new legislation is part of the EU 's "Fit for 55" package, which has set a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by least 55% by 2030. Whereas 2% might not seem like much, consider that currently less than 0.05% of Europe's aviation fuel is sustainable, meaning airlines within the bloc will have to increase their share of clean fuels by more than 40x in the space of just two years. 

For a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to qualify as sustainable, it must be able to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% compared to conventional fossil fuel-based jet fuels. At the top of the sustainability hierarchy are fuels made from biomass including crop residues, animal waste, forestry residue, algae and even everyday rubbish, such as product packaging and food leftovers that can typically lower CO2 emissions by 85-95%. Related: Oil Price Rally Sees WTI Top $90

But achieving cleaner flights will not come cheap. SAF are significantly more expensive than conventional jet fuel, and this cost premium is the key barrier to their wider adoption. Fuel costs constitute the biggest line item for airlines, typically accounting for ~22% of their overheads. Using renewable air fuel would likely necessitate passing the extra costs to customers by increasing ticket prices, something that would not work well unless everybody did it at once because airline-specific fare changes are highly price elastic. The economics of some SAF are just egregious: earlier in the year, Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) pulled the plug on its 14-year-long algae biofuels project because it found that crude would have to hit ~$500/bbl for algae biofuels to compete successfully. Either way, air travel is about to get a lot more expensive, so much so that the "demand reduction impact" that would result from people being priced out is expected to account for ~14% of the required cuts to hit the EU emissions target.

Bright Future For Synthetic Fuels

The latest move by the EU improves the outlook for synthetic fuels even further. Synthetic fuels are liquid fuels produced from natural gas, coal, peat, and oil shale, and include  synthetic diesel, synthetic kerosene and green methanol. According to the IEA, synthetic fuels are vital in the decarbonization of transport and industry by 2050.

Carbon-neutral synthetic fuels are manufactured using captured carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide from the atmosphere or an industrial process such as steel making and also from biomass that is gasified before being catalyzed with hydrogen using thermal or chemical means.

German multinational engineering and technology company BOSCH is a leading advocate of synthetic fuels. According to the company, synthetic fuels will help the roughly half of the current fleet of vehicles expected to still be on the roads by 2030 to play a part in cutting CO2 emissions (synthetic fuels are 100% compatible with current fossil fuel engines). 

Synthetic fuels can also be blended in fossil fuels or can completely replace them in existing ships, airplanes or industrial technologies. Studies have found that sustainable aviation fuels including synthetic or bio-based jet fuels, are so far the most promising option for the decarbonization of the carbon-heavy aviation sector. Two years ago, the Netherlands demo'ed the first passenger flight powered by synthetic fuels with an energy density only marginally lower than that of fossil-based kerosene. The IEA has predicted that by 2030, 15% of total fuel consumption in aviation will be SAF, rising to 75% by 2050.

 By Alex Kimani for

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Alex Kimani

Alex Kimani is a veteran finance writer, investor, engineer and researcher for  More