The aviation sector in a pandemic has 99 problems. And climate change remains a big one.
The industry aims to build back better, aware that it's one of the few sectors that hasn't yet embraced electrification. The key solutions today are biofuels, only displacing a mere fraction of fossil fuels-based jet fuel, and offsets.
But in reality, with revenues and ticket sales way down, there's only so much commercial airlines actually will do to meet decarbonization goals. And if you look at the aviation industry's historical pledges to add in bio-based jet fuels, before the pandemic, it's fallen woefully short.
Enter air cargo. More specifically, Amazon's air shipping business, which along with its entire global logistics supply chain juggernaut is booming.
A startup called Infinium announced it has raised a round of funding including backing from Amazon's Climate Pledge Fund. Infinium makes biofuel by taking hydrogen made with clean power and electrolysis, combining it with carbon dioxide and running it through two thermochemical processes — turning it into a replacement fuel for airplanes, ships and large trucks.
Infinium, spun out of another company called Greyrock Energy, says because the biofuel (dubbed an "electrofuel") is made with clean energy and CO2, it's a "net-zero carbon" fuel. The fuel isn't yet being made commercially just yet, and it'll take at least three years to build a factory and start making it at any kind of scale. Economic production at scale is the key metric for biofuel makers.
Still, Amazon's support is the latest indicator that the logistics giant is eyeing ways to clean up aviation.
Amazon Vice President of Worldwide Sustainability Kara Hurst released a statement about the investment:
Amazon created The Climate Pledge Fund to support the development of technologies and services that will enable Amazon and other companies to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement 10 years early — achieving net-zero carbon by 2040. Infinium’s electrofuels solution has real potential to help decarbonize transport that carries heavier loads and travels long distances, including air and freight, as well as heavy trucks.
This isn't Amazon's first investment in biofuels. Last summer Amazon announced that it plans to buy 6 million gallons of bio-jet fuel via a division of Shell and produced by World Energy, a big biodiesel producer. The companies said the jet fuel will be made from agricultural waste fats and oils (such as used cooking oil and inedible fats from beef processing).
The world of bio-jet fuel is just getting started. Shell is emerging as a player, but so is Neste, a Finnish company that also makes a renewable diesel product for trucking. Last year, Neste delivered its first batch of sustainable aviation fuel via pipeline for airlines refueling at San Francisco International Airport to use. DHL Express is using Neste's sustainable aviation fuel at SFO.
Amazon is worried about the carbon intensity of the fossil fuel-based jet fuel it uses because it's trying to get to zero carbon by 2040. Air shipping, a growing sector, is the most carbon-intensive way to ship a product. As Amazon Air Director Raoul Sreenivasan said at our VERGE 20 online conference in October: "The world is watching what we do. And we believe we have a responsibility to use our scale for good and make the appropriate investments to achieve this goal."
Because bio-jet fuel is at such an early stage, Amazon can't just go out and switch over its entire air fleet to the stuff. But there are a couple of things Amazon can do as the industry is still maturing. Amazon is already electrifying the ground air equipment at its airport facilities. It's also putting solar up on buildings at the airports.
Most important, Amazon can use its heft to help move the sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry forward. As Sreenivasan said about SAF at VERGE 20: "Our hope is that by making an investment and a commitment that others will partner with us and cause somewhat of a ripple effect in the industry that will drive demand and supply."
Essentially, if Amazon's moving in, hopefully the rest of aviation will follow. With more supply deals and investments in new players, we'll see if the logistics world leader can green up one of the hardest-to-abate sectors: aviation.
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