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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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The Future Of Flight: Finding A Low Carbon Jet Fuel

  • The recent $50 million investment by Microsoft in Chicago-based sustainable fuel company Lanzajet is part of a much larger trend around the world.
  • While plenty of companies are still focused on electric planes, the lack of a significant breakthrough in that area and the infrastructure challenges it faces makes sustainable fuels more attractive.
  • With an estimated 10 billion people flying per year in 2050, the significance of sustainable jet fuel cannot be overstated.

Huge companies are battling it out to produce low-carbon jet fuel as several of the world’s biggest multinationals and energy companies race to decarbonize their operations. With increasing pressure from governments and international organizations to reduce the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions being released, companies are looking for new jet fuel options to help reduce their impact. 

Lanzajet appears to be the answer for some. The Chicago-based company, established in 2020, is attempting to produce an alternative jet fuel that is not reliant on fossil fuels. While the company is yet to generate any revenue, it has received a significant amount of funding in recent months. This January, Microsoft provided the company with a $50 million investment, on top of already substantial funding from airlines and energy companies, such as Shell. 

The U.S. government also appears to be supporting Lanzajet, with the U.S. Department of Energy offering $14 million in funds to a subsidiary of the firm to build its first plant in Georgia. Lanzajet hopes to be producing tens of millions of gallons of its new sustainable jet and diesel fuels by as early as 2023.

The move to develop low or zero-carbon jet fuel arose following years of failed attempts at electrifying the aviation industry. While electric planes have come a long way, they still face significant limitations, such as short battery life and heavy equipment restricting flight distance. In contrast, alternative fuels could offer aviation companies the same flight capabilities as traditional fuels, allowing them to maintain traditional flight practices as well as avoiding investment in a huge infrastructure overhaul. 

Many that are looking for an alternative to electric planes say that hydrogen fuel cells may offer the answer. Several companies have been developing hydrogen-powered planes in recent years, modifying existing plane engines to work with the new types of cells. Airbus expects to have its first zero-emissions, commercial hydrogen plane up and running by 2035, using liquid hydrogen tanks as fuel. However, many argue that clean hydrogen production is still much more expensive than its fossil fuel alternatives, making it an unpopular option. 

In comparison, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) offers a power source that can be used with existing plane engines, without the need to construct a new plane framework to fit with the power source. In addition, until enough SAF is being produced to run zero-emissions flights, it can be blended with traditional jet fuel to decrease the emissions and bridge the gap. 

Lanzajet’s CEO Jimmy Samartzis explains “For us, it’s about the urgency of needing to take action today.” And ″SAF is the best solution for the coming years and likely two-plus decades.” 

The race to zero-carbon jet fuel has been gaining momentum since the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced in October its plan for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This follows similar moves by several major airlines in the U.S. and Europe. With an anticipated 10 billion people flying annually by 2050, the introduction of SAF and other renewable energy sources is vital to the future of low-carbon flying. 

Following the COP26 climate summit last November, British Airways debuted its first SAF flight, using recycled cooking oil to power its plane. Although the company did not achieve carbon neutrality with its flight, it was a step in the right direction and an important public move to show its dedication to the development of SAF. In a similar move, 50 airlines, including Delta and Boeing, pledged to replace 20 percent of the global jet fuel with SAF by 2030, a figure that currently only equates to 0.1 percent of the industry’s fuel. 

It seems that it’s not only major companies investing in the future of low-carbon aviation as state governments are also supporting the development of SAF. The U.K. government is now launching a consultation for the development of low-carbon fuels (LCFs). At present, most of LCFs are used for road transport fuels or blended with petrol and diesel. However, in the future the government expects them to be used in the aviation and maritime sectors. The U.K. anticipates an increase in SAF demand, with production equating to between 4 and 8 percent of global aviation use by 2030.

Meanwhile, in India, the Air Force has approved the use of bio-jet fuel in its fleet. This follows recent interest from India’s commercial aviation industry for the adoption of SAF. However, industry experts suggest that the government needs to incentivize the adoption of SAF and ease policy restrictions for widespread adoption to take place.

In Denmark, the Danish Power-to-X project ‘Green Fuels for Denmark’ is expecting to complete part of its project two years earlier than originally planned. It hopes to bring 100MW of the 250MW electrolysis phase-two project forward to 2025, as well as capturing sustainable carbon dioxide that same year. This acceleration will allow for the production of 50,000 tonnes of sustainable fuel in 2025, mainly e-methanol for shipping. It marks the start of the country’s green aviation future through its ‘Green Fuels for Denmark’ scheme, which it expects to also bring forward to 2025.

As major companies from around the globe as well as many world governments invest heavily in the development of sustainable aviation fuel, we can expect to see low-carbon flights becoming more commonplace within the next decade. As electric and hydrogen alternatives lag behind, due to high costs and infrastructure limitations, the race is on to develop SAF that can be used across commercial operations. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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