MIAMI – While the bulk of food waste in the world produces greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change, American researchers find a way to create sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from that waste.

According to the BBC, a group of scientists claims that its method to produce SAF reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 165% as compared to fossil fuels. They discovered a way to turn “wet waste” into a form of paraffin that can power jet engines.

Furthermore, as the food and technology industries evolve at a rapid pace, innovative solutions are becoming more prevalent. Examples range from a market in India that converts 10 tons of food waste into electricity to a plant in Indiana, US, that converts plastic waste into eco-friendly petrol.

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Collaborative Research

The researchers come from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the University of Dayton, Yale University, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and airlines such as Southwest (WN) have already begun working on SAF.

With global passenger numbers predicted to double by 2040, airlines must seriously explore ways to minimize their parts in emission. For example, Delta Air Lines (DL) pledged a US$1bn investment last year to achieve climate neutrality by 2030. In addition, Air Canada (AC) recently announced its roadmap to carbon neutral by 2050.

According to NREL, airlines actually account for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

“If our refining pathway is scaled up, it could take as little as a year or two for airlines like Southwest to get the fuel regulatory approvals they need to start using wet waste SAF in commercial flights,” NREL scientist Derek Vardon and corresponding author of the paper said in a press release.

“That means net-zero-carbon flights are on the horizon earlier than some might have thought.”

Airplanes at Airport. Photo: Brett Sayles. Pexels

Sustainable Paraffin is Key

The process developed by the researchers prevents the conversion of food waste into methane and creates volatile fatty acids. The team then used catalytic conversion to create two forms of green paraffin. Therefore, Using both types and then integrating 70% of that with jet fuel provides a mixture that meets airline fuel requirements.

“Since the SAF blend would have a carbon footprint 165% lower than fossil jet, that blend is high enough to decarbonize flight,” Vardon said. Aside from significantly lowering fossil fuel emissions and re-purposing agricultural waste, flights using SAF will release 34% less soot than existing flights.

“That’s where we see the most potential for this technology is that you’re preventing methane emissions, and dramatically lowering the carbon footprint of jet fuel,” Vardon told the BBC. Vardon adds: “And you just can’t do that with fossil fuels without getting into things like offsets.”

Photo: Luca FLores

SAF Is Just the Beginning

Although SAF would not fully address the issue of greenhouse gas pollution, it would give a lifeline to a sector that is being reevaluated in the face of the coronavirus health crisis, the paper says. The industry is well aware of this change in attitudes towards flying. Yesterday, Airbus and Rolls Royce announced initiating flight test trials of 100% SAF.

“It is undeniable that SAF’s role in reducing emissions across the industry and at Southwest will be significant,” said Michael AuBuchon, Southwest’s senior director of fuel supply chain management. “NREL’s research could provide a game-changing opportunity to make SAF cost-effective, leading to its larger-scale deployment.”

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