Boeing's plan for sustainable aviation fuel | FT Rethink
It will be a long-haul journey, requiring a blend of investment and legislation to get greener fuel off the ground, reports the FT's Myles McCormick. But the airline has conducted the first ever commercial flight, with 100 per cent SAF on a 777 freighter
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Aviation is under pressure to go green, which is why I've come to Seattle to find out more about sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, which uses feedstocks such as cooking oil to reduce emissions by up to 80 per cent. Hi, Sheila. Great to meet you.
Hi, Myles. Welcome to Boeing.
One advantage of SAF is that it can be blended with traditional jet fuel and used with existing airport infrastructure, engines, and planes.
This is our 737 MAX facility. It's where we put together the final aircraft for delivery to our customers.
How does your shift towards sustainable aviation fuel fit into this whole process?
It is going to be a drop-in fuel that goes into these aircraft. And today, these aircraft can fly on a 50/50 blend of that fuel. For SAF in particular, in the process of decarbonisation, it is probably the largest contribution that could be made.
This 777 is Boeing's guinea pig for testing its latest technology. And it flies on a blend of SAF and jet fuel. Boeing has pledged that all the commercial planes it delivers will be certified to fly on 100 per cent SAF by 2030. But they'll need to be modified.
If you start using higher percentages of sustainable fuel then there are some changes to the airplanes that will have to happen, mostly to things like seals, the things that contain the fuel because seals that have been exposed to fossil fuel for long periods of time that are then exposed to high percentages of SAF can leak.
How widespread is the usage of SAF right now?
It's not very widespread at all. And one of the purposes of a programme like the ecoDemonstrator is to get people aware so that eventually there's investment, and it can be scaled up to be more available.
At the moment SAF accounts for less than 1 per cent of global jet fuel and costs three to five times more than its fossil-based sibling. And not all SAFs are created equal.
The one SAF is not the same as the other. You have the pure biofuels. So you grow something somewhere and then make a fuel out of that. And then you have the waste-based fuels. And the last one is a completely different way to do it. You suck the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, add hydrogen to it, green hydrogen. So there are many limitations here. And based on that, there is a process. You can make fuel - kerosene - e-fuel they call it. And that's actually the best one because then you close the carbon cycle completely.
Synthetic e-fuels are still years away from being commercially viable. Biofuels, though, are readily available. But production of them needs to be scaled up dramatically. If the airline industry is to hit its emissions targets SAF production needs to ramp up to around 450bn litres per year by 2050.
To put that figure into context, Finnish firm Neste produced 125mn litres of SAF last year, and that is the largest SAF producer in the world. Neste is also investing 1.9bn euros to expand and adapt its Rotterdam biodiesel refinery, pushing its global SAF production capacity to around 2.75bn litres annually.
This is the latest addition to the renewables refinery where the diesel will be distilled and the SAF production will take place. And it will be a fully flexible operation where we can choose whether it will be diesel or renewable jet fuel as a function of what the customer demand is. So here you can see the construction of two new tanks to be able to store the SAF, which will be produced by the end of the year 2023.
Just an hour's drive away from the refinery is Europe's third largest airport, Schiphol in Amsterdam. Here there are measures in place to encourage the use of SAF.
There is already sustainable aviation fuels available at our airport. And we offer a financial incentive to airlines if they uplift sustainable aviation fuels. The financial incentive helps the airlines to bridge the price gap between regular Jet A-1 kerosene and the price of SAF.
But some of the costs of using SAF will have to be borne by passengers too.
It costs more typically right now, maybe three to four times what fossil jet fuel costs. However, we can't compare apples and pears because fossil jet fuel is not a long-term option for the industry. So this cost ultimately will have to be borne by the user. We're talking a few dollars or euros per passenger for, let's say, 2 per cent or 5 per cent SAF usage, which is where we need to start and gradually ramp up over time.
But ramping up bio-based SAF production is making environmentalists nervous. There are concerns about land use change and deforestation as the demand for SAF grows.
The current practises of biofuel production, mainly for the car like in Brazil, there are already problems there with forests being cut down for palm oil, that sort of thing. That's the risk of using biofuel, and you need an awful lot of space. Because of this space use, the effect on the climate is not a 100 per cent reduction. But at most, if everything is perfect, 80 per cent.
The path to greening the skies isn't obvious. But calls to lower the industry's carbon footprint are getting more insistent.
If we're not careful aviation will be put in the same box as tobacco. We don't want to be there. Aviation can be a real force for good. But we've got to find a way of doing it in a more socially acceptable way.
Back at Boeing they've taken the first steps towards greening their planes.
We conducted some of the very first flights with blends. And we conducted the first ever commercial flight with 100 per cent SAF on a 777 freighter.
Across the pond, Virgin has received funding from the British government to carry out the first transatlantic flight powered by 100 per cent SAF between London and New York. But switching the entire industry to pure SAF is still a distant prospect.
It will be a challenge. I mean, we really have the Industrial Revolution that took place over 100 years that needs to be done in the next 10. So that is a heavy lift. As a human race we've done it before, so I think we'll do it again.
It's a long-haul journey, one that will require a blend of investment and legislation in order to get SAF off the ground.