October 5, 2022
Is the Promise of Sustainable Aviation Fuel a Myth?
Industry Innovation Technology

Is the Promise of Sustainable Aviation Fuel a Myth?

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DALLAS – According to a recent assessment by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), it will be difficult to accomplish the White House target of meeting 100% of U.S. jet fuel demand with biofuels by 2050 due to sustainability and supply issues.

The CBD is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

According to the report released today, the majority of the feedstocks being evaluated for the production of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) would have a negative impact on the environment or the climate. The report adds that the development of renewable fuels alone cannot achieve the ambitious SAF production target.

“Once you examine the data, the aviation biofuels boon looks more like a boondoggle,” said John Fleming, Ph.D., a scientist at the Center’s Climate Law Institute and the lead author of the report.

“Aviation is inarguably one of the toughest sectors to decarbonize, but that’s exactly why we need a diversified, comprehensive approach. For Biden to put all our eggs in the biofuels basket is a reckless disregard of climate reality.”

The Boeing 2022 ecoDemonstrator tests 30 technologies to enhance safety and sustainability, including a blend of SAF. Photo: Boeing

Background on the Legislation

The Biden administration announced executive actions last year to promote the production of billions of gallons of SAF to aid in meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

On September 8, 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU), thus launching the government-wide SAF program.

The administration’s “Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge” set a target of sufficient SAF to meet 100% of aviation fuel demand by 2050 by reducing the cost, enhancing the sustainability and expanding the production and use of SAF that achieves “a minimum of a 50% reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) compared to conventional fuel.”

However, the report from the CBD concludes the US government can only hope to meet 4% to 38% of the predicted 35-billion-gallon-demand in 2050. Moreover, the use of SAFs by airlines would be entirely optional.

The Inflation Reduction Act recently signed by POTUS also contains funds to strengthen SAFs.

Airbus A380 MSN001 SAF flight. Photo: Airbus

To Make Something out of Nothing

The paper also points out that a lot of the raw materials, or feedstocks, suggested for the manufacturing of SAF are anything but sustainable, even though these biomass-based fuels are intended to cut emissions by 50% compared to traditional jet fuel.

For instance, feedstocks based on food crops produce greenhouse gas emissions comparable to those of fossil fuels and put pressure on food resources. Using animal fats, animal manure, and wood biomass, on the other hand, gives way to environmentally harmful enterprises.

Finally, though possibly sustainable, crop residues, wastewater sludge, and municipal solid waste don’t produce enough biofuel to reach the intended goal.

“There’s only so much sewage sludge and crop cuttings, and most other biofuel feedstocks aren’t truly sustainable,” said Fleming.

Indeed, the lead author of the assessment is on order when stating that the US needs to set airplane emissions standards not “mired in the myth of sustainable aviation fuels” and advance electrification, or else any aviation climate goals “could vanish into thin air.”

The companion Center for Biological Diversity report, Flight Path, outlines more feasible solutions that include improving aircraft fuel efficiency, making operational and regulatory improvements, and achieving “ambitious advancements” toward a fully electrified aviation sector.

What’s your take on the report in light of all the news about SAF production in the industry? Will electric flight and new coded regulations have a more predominant role in the industry’s zero-emission goals? Be sure to leave your comments on our social media channels.

Featured image: Neste’s SAF is called “Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel”. Photo: Neste

Chief Online Editor
Chief Online Editor at Airways Magazine, AVSEC interpreter and visual artist; grammar geek, an avid fan of aviation, motorcycles, sci-fi literature, and film.

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