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Sustainable aviation fuels: From technically possible to economically viable

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Refueling plane with sustainable aviation fuel in Rotterdam.

Shell Aviation

This article is sponsored by Shell.

On Jan. 22, history was made when a KLM jet took off from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and landed safely in Madrid. The flight was the world’s first to use certified synthetic kerosene, made from CO2, water and renewable energy. 

The captain informed passengers this was a big step for the industry — although they hadn’t noticed any difference on the flight. The importance of introducing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is not lost on the airline giant, however, nor on one of its partners, Shell. 

The synthetic kerosene was developed in the Shell Technology Center in Amsterdam, synthesized from hydrogen, recycled carbon dioxide, water and renewable power from solar panels and Dutch wind turbines. The fuel, produced using recycled carbon emissions from Shell’s Pernis refinery in Rotterdam and a Dutch dairy farm, offers a significant life-cycle carbon emission reduction compared to conventional jet fuel, and can be used in an aircraft without requiring any technical modification to the engine. 

So, it’s a fuel made from waste gas and renewable power: Why doesn’t every airplane in the world use it? This flight took 132 gallons of renewable fuel and was blended with conventional kerosene, raising the issue of scale. This is an early-stage technology, which in the future could lead to scaled production from waste feedstocks and help deliver a greater volume of SAF to the market. Supporting technology pathways such as this is critical as SAF production today is less than 1 percent of overall jet fuel supply. In addition, the price of SAF is at multiple to jet kerosene for the most readily available technologies (at pre-COVID-19 oil prices), and significantly more for others, precluding a large-scale uptake in a highly cost-competitive sector.

Yet, SAF is a key part of the aviation industry’s plan to reduce carbon emissions in the coming decades. So, how can we bridge that gap? 

The answer doesn’t lie with just one company or stakeholder — the world needs public-private partnerships and collaboration to make widespread SAF a reality. Investors need to deploy capital; governments need to create policies that support and incentivize these investments and use of recycled carbon as feedstock; and businesses need to think long term when developing the necessary infrastructure to support SAF. 

All to say, it is critical the industry and governments work together to develop SAF in a structural way, helping to overcome the "chicken and egg" problem when it comes to supply and demand. Feasible and ambitious mandates introduced on a global scale can help to encourage uptake and unlock learning curve effects and economies of scale, which could lower costs. 

Alongside SAF, new innovations such as electric or hydrogen-fueled aircrafts offer exciting potential for reducing emissions from the 2030s onwards but are not expected to make significant impacts in decarbonization for the sector until the 2040s and beyond. This means the role of SAF is stronger than ever as a key lever for aviation decarbonization in the short to medium term. 

Before COVID-19, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) noted that CO2 emissions from international air travel could be reduced by as much as 63 percent by 2050 if conventional aviation fuel is replaced entirely by SAF. In short: SAF could be the most significant contribution to aviation's carbon neutral growth, and It is vital that actors across the aviation ecosystem continue to collaborate to rapidly scale up production of SAF volumes.

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