Sustainable jet fuel is taking off with commercial airlines
On Thursday JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic and the US Air Force announced their commitment to buy sustainable jet fuel from a New York-based startup called Air Company.
JetBlue agreed to buy 25 million gallons of Air Company’s sustainable aviation fuel over five years, and Virgin Atlantic agreed to purchase up to 100 million gallons over 10 years. Boom Supersonic, a company trying to bring back supersonic passenger flight, plans to purchase up to 5 million gallons of this fuel on an annual basis through its Overture flight test program.
According to a press release, the US Air Force, which awarded the company a contract, has already completed a “first-of-its-kind unmanned flight using Air Company’s 100% unblended CO2-derived jet fuel.”
“Aviation, as a whole, represents 2-3% global CO2 emissions. Air Company noted this in a statement . Air Company’s single-step process to produce CO2-derived fuel using renewable electricity has been developed and deployed using the same proprietary technology as photosynthesis.
There has been a great deal of emerging research and investment into the development of sustainable aviation fuel, as more attention is directed at technologies that can help corporations reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. Although electric and battery-powered vehicles are being considered as alternatives to air transport, they can present their own challenges. Electric aircraft can be used for short trips, but not for long distances. Therefore, it is important to find more environmentally friendly ways of powering the combustion engines of aircraft.
What is sustainable aviation fuel?
Traditional Jet Fuel, also known as kerosene or hydrocarbons, is a mixture of hydrocarbons formed from a series chemical reactions. But to make it sustainable, instead of using fossil fuels, engineers would instead integrate more renewable starting materials, like feedstocks, or waste products, such as used cooking oils (read PopSci’s explainer on sustainable aviation fuel here). The idea is that even though they still emit carbon pollution when burned, because they removed carbon from the air during the production process, they become “carbon neutral .”
Sustainable aviationfuels (SAF) are made from carbon dioxide or hydrogen. These products are known as synthetic SAFs.
[Related: The truth about carbon capture technology]
” “Our new carbon conversion process has potential to replace legacy Fischer–Tropsch systems, simplifying a multistep conversion into single–step CO2 hydrogenation fuel-grade paraffin,” Stafford Sheehan, co-founder of Air Company, stated in a press release. (Fischer-Tropsch systems turn hydrogen gas and carbon monoxide into water vapor and hydrocarbons through reactions that rearrange the bonds between the compounds. Carbon monoxide is typically obtained from coal or natural gas. “Furthermore with additional reactor modifications, it is possible to produce a fuel composition that can be used in a Jet Engine without any blending of fossil fuels, as demonstrated by our test flight with U.S. Air Force. SAF will be more cost-effective and available for widespread use .”
The company laid out their full fuel production process in a white paper published in the journal ACS Energy Letters. Earlier this year, the company experimented on a smaller scale with making ethanol out of thin air through products like vodka, hand sanitizer, and perfume.
The US has already approved the use SAFs in combination with traditional jet fuel. Researchers in Europe have been looking into ways to reconfigure the original jet fuel production process with renewable energy and non-fossil fuel starting materials. However, efficiency is a problem as is cost. SAFs are reported to cost up to four times as much as traditional jet fuel. Air Company is no exception. The company’s CEO told Axios that their SAF is “not close to cost parity with traditional jet fuel,” but SAF-specific incentives included in the Inflation Reduction Act should be able to cut some of the costs. Another problem is the limited availability of SAFs in comparison to traditional jet fuel.
Although a few companies have been testing small flights run on this greener jet fuel alternative, questions still remain about how compatible SAFs are with the materials that make up the aircraft in the long haul.
Despite the doubts and obstacles, many companies continue to invest in this vision, In July, Alaska Airlines, Microsoft, and Twelve said that they were working towards a demonstration flight using fuels derived from recaptured CO2 and renewable energy. And last year, Lufthansa announced a similar agreement to produce and use synthetic jet fuel.
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