The Road To A Cleaner Sky: Can Planes Fly on 100% Sustainable Jet Fuel?

Aircraft and Innovation
Ahmed El Dahan
min read
June 22, 2021

As global aviation continues to see a gradual increase in demand, it is predicted that air traffic will double in 20 years. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, global CO2 emissions from commercial aviation activity in 2019 totalled 918 million metric tons with 85% stemming from passenger transport. While evidently this figured dropped in 2020 due to flight restrictions, by 2030 the air-transport sector alone will be responsible for 3.5 percent of the world's carbon emissions, a 2.5 percent increase from current levels even with advancing aircraft efficiency.

Unfortunately, unlike cars, commercial aircraft are yet to be powered electrically continuing to rely solely on fossil fuels for air travel. As it stands, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the key ingredient to keep flyers in the sky whilst reducing CO2 emissions.

What is SAF?

Whereas conventional jet fuel is a hydrocarbon in nature, notably kerosene, biofuels used to power aircraft are derived from biomass - organic waste or plant sources such as algae, palm oil, Babassu and Jatropha amongst others. In addition, other technologies create synthetic biofuels extracted using solar reactors.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is the key ingredient to keep flyers in the sky whilst reducing CO2 emissions.

Whilst these alternatives to conventional fuels exist and are currently in use, they are limited to having a 50% blend with traditional jet fuel, overlooking their full ecological potentials. Unfortunately, while SAF is technically capable of powering aircraft alone, when used unblended it can result in engine malfunctions such as shrinking elastic tank seals leading to fuel leakage. Furthermore, the cost of biofuel production is three to four times more expensive than traditional jet fuel, a determining factor in its wide-scale application.

“Regulations are very strict in the aeronautical field and alternative fuels must be subject to the same rules as kerosene ensuring they can withstand extreme variations in temperature and pressure, whilst being compatible with all engine components. The other issue to consider is price, since jet fuel costs $550 per tonne whilst biofuel costs $1,700. This is one reason for the use of "drop-in" kerosene-sustainable hybrid fuels (up to 50%), since they burn less hydrocarbons without going over budget"

Now with the pandemic easing to its end, several organisations are looking to overcome the operational challenges of biofuels researching 100% SAF-powered aircraft.

TotalEnergies has taken the initiative, already producing biofuel in its plants at La Mède in the South of France along with the Oudalle complex near Le Havre. Furthermore, the company is set to expand its SAF production by 2024 from the Grandpuits facility near Paris. To date, all of the company’s fuel is being produced using waste cooking oil and animal fats with no impact on agricultural food production. As of April 2021, the company has already begun supplying French airports with its alternative fuels.

“By producing sustainable aviation fuel at our French sites today, we are able to respond to strong demand from an aviation industry looking to reduce its carbon footprint, while adapting our industrial resources. As a broad energy company, we support our customers by providing innovative solutions to reduce their emissions. This commitment is fully aligned with Total’s climate ambition to get to net zero emissions by 2050"

explains Bernard Pinatel - President of Refining & Chemicals - TotalEnergies.

The VOLCAN Project

Headed by the French Ministry of Transport, Vol Avec Carburants Alternatifs Nouveaux – Flight with New Alternative Fuel (VOLCAN) is a collaborative effort between some of the largest aviation conglomerates including Airbus, Safran and Dassault with biofuel provided by TotalEnergies. With a planned initiation by the end of 2021, the project comes as part of France’s post-pandemic aviation recovery plan.

A single-aisle A320neo equipped with CFM LEAP-1A engines will be supplied with 100% SAF that will be used to collect flight data to further assess the performance of small aircraft, commercial flyers along with helicopters using biofuel. The study is also going to assess the safety of biofuel and provide further insight into the risks of biocontamination.

ADAC - Luftrettung

Brought by the same corporate coalition and in collaboration with the German non-profit organization ADAC Luftrettung, they have successfully tested an Airbus H145 medical rescue helicopter flying on TotalEnergies SAF.

"For us, the Sustainable Aviation Fuel pilot project is a first big step on the way to a climate-neutral ADAC Foundation and air rescue service, and our contribution as a non-profit organisation to achieving the climate protection goals of Germany and Europe.” says Dr. Andrea David - CEO - ADAC Foundation.

The goal of the project is to limit annual greenhouse gas emissions by 33%, or 6,000 tons annually. If put into regular activity, this reduction could be achieved through 50,000 flights by SAF-powered helicopters flying over 3.3 million kilometres flown per year.

Going Green

While a decarbonized aviation industry was one day a dream, it is slowly coming to fruition thanks to the efforts of global air-transport leaders. While it is still the case that biofuel comes with technical complications and increased price over traditional hydrocarbons, the industry has taken the correct initiative to attack these problems that can realize the full-scale application of clean flight technology in the near future. At Eways Aviation we fully support the integration of SAF that has the potential to revolutionize the global aviation industry and keep our skies clean.

Ahmed El Dahan
Aviation Journalist
A seasoned writer, Ahmed El Dahan was trained in Journalism and Mass Communication in the American University in Cairo. He then moved on to refine his writing skills working in various publications covering such topics as tourism, art exhibitions, music along with being a food critic. Relocating to Paris in 2015, he has an ever growing curiosity for the aviation industry. Away from the page, Dahan is an active professional saxophonist.

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