Racing towards a sustainable aviation fuel

Racing towards a sustainable aviation fuel

Keep your eyes skyward this November for news of a publicity stunt expected to draw fresh attention to the controversial idea of sustainable aviation fuel. That’s when British pilot Jeremy Roswell plans to fly a small private plane 10,000 miles -- from Sydney, Australia to London, England -- powered by a fuel made from plastic waste.

The Cessna in question uses a diesel engine and is expected to make its historic run on a product manufactured by the Irish company Cynar Plc. The fuel reportedly uses pyrolysis technology to melt down the waste plastics in an oxygen-free, emissions-free process.

“Our technology represents a unique and profitable way to significantly decrease the amount of end-of-life plastics that are disposed in landfills and incinerators,” said Cynar CEO and Chairman Michael Murray in a press statement earlier this year. Cynar has also awarded an $11 million contract to Rockwell Automation (NYSE: ROK) to design and build a plastic-to-fuel conversion plant in the U.K.



But Cynar isn’t the only one trying to find an affordable, sustainable vehicular fuel. The Filipino company Polygreen is also using pyrolysis to convert plastics into fuel. Its founder believes the new fuel will burn cleaner and be 20 percent less expensive than standard fuel due to the massive availability of waste plastics.

In Indiana, Swift Fuels LLC is also working on that challenge, but from a different angle. It’s developing high-octane aviation biofuel using agricultural feed stuffs like switchgrass and grains.

Photo of airplane icon by vladis torms via Shutterstock.

The advantage to Swift Fuels’ approach, according to its COO Jon Ziulkowski, is that crops other than food sources can be used. The resulting product does not contain ethanol or harmful chemicals, and can be adapted to existing distribution infrastructures. It can also use multiple feed stocks.

“This idea just adds one more feed stock to the equation,” he said. “Several companies are already producing renewable aviation fuels from multiple renewable sources today. “

Ziulkowski notes that the Cynar aviation fuel is meant for diesel, compression-ignition piston engines and not jets. “If they intend on entering the turbine fuel market there has been an established path created for those potential candidate fuels to follow,” he said, noting that diesel fuel is not interchangeable with jet fuels. And he says he has yet to hear of the pyrolysis technology fuel coming under standards set by ASTM International or CAAF, the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative.

And while there is still not any one producer who can make enough alternative aviation fuel, the field is far from empty. Oklahoma-based Syntroleum has entered into a venture with Tyson Foods on a project to convert both animal fats and vegetable oils into aviation-grade fuel.  

“I’m excited to see more innovation,” said Ziulkowski, who pointed out that the U.S. military is working towards a goal of sourcing 50 percent of its fuel supplies from renewable sources by 2020. “I think the airlines are adapting to alternative fuels and are willing to adapt."

“It’a big enough party for everyone who wants to play in it," he said. "Not one single source can reduce our dependence on petroleum, but multiple manufacturers could make a difference.”