Could aviation fuel become net negative?
It has hardly escaped anyone with an interest in aviation that the industry is facing one of its biggest transitions yet. Even the surviving global lockdowns pale in comparison to the challenge posed by decarbonization. However, if the industry wants to survive, it will have to make every effort to achieve this and use all the technological levers at its disposal.
A key feature of any airline sustainability program is the investment and use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Although this still represents less than 1% of all jet fuel transported globally, the industry is gaining momentum. Facilitated by tax credits in the United States and mandates in Europe, it should reach more than 15 billion dollars before the end of the decade.
This means that, although currently dominated by a few names, we are bound to see more and more players on the scene. Meanwhile, one of the pioneers and early movers is Alder Fuels. Continuing a long history of collaboration with Boeing, the company has just entered into a new agreement with the aerospace giant to test Alder-derived fuel using the OEM’s aircraft.
With a commitment from United Airlines for 1.5 billion gallons, new SAF policies under the Cut Inflation Act, and a partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the company is entering a chapter exciting. Simple Flying sat down with its Founder and CEO, Bryan Sherbacow, to talk about the evolution of the low-carbon aviation fuel industry, the critical importance of scalability – and the potential for net negative emissions from jet fuel.
Rely on the first SAF refinery in the world
While Alder Fuels may be expecting its first plant to be completed in 2024, Sherbacow is far from new to the industry. In fact, to say he is a pioneer in the field of sustainable aviation fuel is almost an understatement. Along with its predecessor company, AltAir Fuels, Sherbacow set up the world’s first refinery designed to produce SAF in Paramount, California.
United Airlines will purchase 1.5 billion gallons of SAF from Alder Fuels. Photo: United Airlines
In addition, he signed the aviation industry’s first commercial contracts for SAF with clients including United Airlines, KLM, Boeing and World Fuel Services. Later contracts included agreements with Amazon, UPS and Gulfstream. He says,
“There was no industry actually, back in 2009 when I was first introduced to the idea of sustainable aviation fuel. But I started a company called AltAir Fuels because that the United States Department of Defense sponsored a project to demonstrate the viability of what we now call SAF, or sustainable aviation fuel, on behalf of the United States Navy and Air Force. United to try to create some independence, if you will, around energy security.”
Back then, the conversation about biofuels revolved around ethanol and biodiesel. No one had really started talking about alternative fuels (meaning a pure hydrocarbon that is the same as the one it replaces). So, says Sherbacow, the idea of a low-carbon jet fuel was completely new and “a pretty cool thing to hear.”
The idea of an alternative fuel was just beginning to emerge when Sherbacow created AltAir. Photo: Getty Images
The money is in the raw material
Most SAFs in production today are refined from sources such as used cooking oil and animal fats, called HEFAs (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids). Meanwhile, Alder Fuels and its partners have developed technology to take sustainable forest residues and regenerative biomass and turn them into low-carbon, “green crude” for jet fuel conversion. Mr. Sherbacow states,
“It’s really important to understand that in energy the most important variable will be your feedstock. It’s the same in oil and gas – all the money in traditional oil and gas is in the oil Everything else and the logistics, the refining, the marketing of the distribution, it’s very small margins, and the majority of the money is in the raw material. It’s no different in renewable energy.
Regenerative grasses (not shown) have great potential for carbon sequestration and potential socio-economic benefits. Photo: Getty Images
Could net negative jet fuel become a reality?
Commodity scalability, says Sherbacow, is key. And it looks like Alder Fuels is making a wise choice of raw material. According to the US Department of Energy, US forestry and agricultural residues could provide biomass energy for enough SAF to replace 75% of US aviation fuel consumption.
However, there are even more exciting prospects on the horizon – regenerative grasses – which could even lead to net negative CO2 (meaning it removes more carbon throughout its life cycle than it does not emit) jet fuel. These targeted energy crops are what Alder Fuels sees as the area of greatest potential – promising something like a holy trinity of low-cost, scalable, net-negative carbon emissions.
These types of grasses, such as Napier or Miscanthus, sequester more carbon below ground than grown above ground, which means they could be the key to creating not only a net-zero supply chain for jet fuel, but a negative carbon chain. Additionally, while many SAF feedstocks are geographically limited, these grasses can be grown globally. They are also regenerative, meaning they add value to the soil in which they are grown and could provide income in areas where economic opportunities are limited.
The Midwest will be important for the supply of raw materials, which will require policies to support the agricultural transition. Photo: Sun Country Airlines
California, New York and the Midwest
The agricultural component is also nationally significant in the United States, which is one reason the industry needs to look beyond California’s densely populated northeast and favorable political climate. Mr. Sherbacow is the president of a group called the Low Carbon Coalition, which advocates policies similar to California’s cap-and-trade program and low-carbon fuel standards in other places across the country. He identified the Midwest as a key focal point for the growing industry and support from lawmakers and regulators.
“Energy policy in the United States is really agriculture-focused to a large extent, at least on the renewable energy side, and making sure that we embrace the agricultural community and low-carbon policy is really critical. We don’t want them to feel threatened by that, we’re only going for electrification and hydrogen, we want to make sure there’s an agricultural component, where they’re also rewarded for decarbonization their efforts, and we all need agriculture to reduce carbon emissions.”
Whether or not the industry achieves its net zero goal by 2050, it is essential that it does everything it can to succeed and that we get as close to the goal as possible. For this, an industry otherwise characterized by competition will have to come together and collaborate. Partnerships such as those created by AltAir and now Alder Fuels will be essential, along with the support of decision makers around the world. We can’t all do everything, but we can all do something.