Every Day is Earth Day in Aviation: IATA’s Fly Net Zero Update

by | Apr 22, 2022 | Airlines, News, Popular

As we mark Earth Day this Friday, we thought to look at the airline industry’s progress on sustainability.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has defined a strategy to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Combined measures include cutting emissions at the source, switching to Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), employing new propulsion technologies, adopting carbon offsetting schemes, and employing new carbon capture technologies.

IATA shows the share of each of these as contributors to the Fly Net Zero targets:

  • 65% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
  • 13% New technology, electric and hydrogen
  • 3% Infrastructure and operational efficiencies
  • 19% Offsets and carbon capture

The latest media update on the airline industry’s Fly Net Zero initiative, by Sebastian Mikosz, IATA SVP Environment & Sustainability, brings the focus back to long-term imperatives for the industry’s 2050 Net Zero emissions deadline.

Mikosz references the volatility in prices of oil, kerosene and commodities stemming from the current crisis in Ukraine. Airlines urgently need to reduce their dependency on fossil fuels, but that requires significant investment from the public and private sectors in SAF and new technologies.

IATA projects airlines will require 450 billion litres of SAF by 2050 to reach the Net Zero goal, but government support is needed to ensure that adequate supply is available and affordable.

Mikosz writes that SAF uptake, purchase agreements, and production are rising, and investment in new energies like hydrogen or electric is increasing. Still, he warns, “The difficulties of achieving #FlyNetZero cannot be understated, but the progress we are seeing across the industry shows that this goal needs to be achieved, and progress is key, but the road ahead will be long.”

The key, Mikosz suggests, is to keep taking the small steps along the journey that lead us to the destination. He also shares updates on those critical small steps.


Progress on SAF (Demand)

  • In March, Airbus flew its biggest aeroplane – the A380 – on SAF: the aircraft flew from Toulouse with one of its Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines powered by 100% sustainable fuel.
  • Ryanair aims to achieve a third of its decarbonisation target by flying its planes with sustainable aviation fuels.
  • Oneworld members are to purchase up to 200 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel per year from Gevo.
  • Neste and DHL have announced one of the largest ever sustainable aviation fuel deals. Neste will supply DHL with approximately 320,000 tonnes (400 million litres) of SAF in the next five years.
  • Finnair signed an agreement with Aemetis to supply 17.5 million gallons of SAF over seven years.
  • British Airways took delivery of an initial batch of the first UK-produced SAF under its agreement with Phillips 66.


Progress on SAF (Production)

  • Honeywell and China’s Oriental Energy Company plan to build China’s first SAF production base.
  • TotalEnergies will begin producing SAF at its Normandy platform and aims to fulfil the French government’s new mandate for aircraft to use at least 1% of SAF by 1 January 2022.
  • Repsol has begun constructing Spain’s first advanced biofuels plant at its Cartagena refinery.
  • United Airlines and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures announced a collaboration with Cemvita Factory to commercialise SAF production through a new process using CO2 and synthetic microbes. ​​​​
  • Spotlight on SAF producers from Earth.org


Will algae take off thanks to AI?

As reported in ScienceDaily, scientists at Texas A&M AgriLife Research say artificial intelligence and machine learning might help algae overcome production hurdles to become a robust alternative energy biomass.

“Algae can be used as an alternative energy source for many industries, including biofuel and as jet fuel,” says Joshua Yuan, PhD, who leads the research project. “Algae is a good alternative fuel source for this industry. It’s an alternate feedstock for bioethanol refinery without the need for pretreatment. It’s lower cost than coal or natural gas. It also provides for a more efficient way of carbon capture and utilisation.”

While many studies over the past decade suggest algae has excellent potential as fuel biomass, algae growth limitations and high harvest costs hinder commercialisation.

“We overcome these challenges by advancing machine learning to inform the design of a semi-continuous algal cultivation (SAC) to sustain optimal cell growth and minimise mutual shading,” Yuan said.

Yuan uses an aggregation-based sedimentation strategy designed to achieve low-cost biomass harvesting and economical SAC.


Government support for new technology

France announced an investment plan that will allocate €1.2 billion for decarbonising aviation, between 2022 and 2030, including €800 million in R&D towards the development of a hydrogen aircraft.

Alternative fuel start-up Universal Hydrogen will open a facility in New Mexico (US) to manufacture and distribute hydrogen fuel tanks for aircraft.

Airbus will explore high-voltage battery behaviour during test flights of an electric light aircraft this year. The aircraft manufacturer hopes to apply the technology to ‘micro-hybridisation’ – using battery power in a supportive, rather than a propulsive, role for more significant aircraft types.

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded Pratt & Whitney a project to develop highly efficient hydrogen-fuelled propulsion technology for the commercial aviation industry.

Delta and Airbus will collaborate on industry-leading research to accelerate the development of a hydrogen-powered aircraft and the ecosystem it requires.

Denmark pledged to build up to six gigawatts (GW) of electrolysis capacity to convert renewable power into green hydrogen as it weans itself off fossil fuels to boost energy security.

In India, Kochi airport became the world’s first to operate on solar power completely.


Everything you didn’t even think you wanted to know about SAF production

For readers interested in a deep dive into SAF production, we can recommend this 2020 in-depth study by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The authors of the report summarise SAF targets and objectives in the Abstract as follows:

“The 106-billion-gallon global (21-billion-gallon domestic) commercial jet fuel market is projected to grow to over 230 billion gallons by 2050 (U.S. EIA 2020a). Cost-competitive, environmentally sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are recognized as a critical part of decoupling carbon growth from market growth. Renewable and wasted carbon can provide a path to low-cost, clean-burning, and low-soot-producing jet fuel. Research shows an opportunity to produce fuel in which aromatics are initially diluted with the addition of renewable iso-alkanes, aromatics are later fully replaced with cycloalkanes, and finally high-performance molecules that provide mission-based value to jet fuel consumers are introduced. Key to this fuel pathway is sourcing the three SAF blendstocks—iso-alkanes, cycloalkanes, and high-performing molecules—from inexpensive resources. When resourced from waste carbon, there are often additional benefits, such as cleaner water when sourcing carbon from wet sludges or less waste going to landfills when sourcing the carbon from municipal solid waste or plastic waste. Jet fuel properties differ from gasoline and diesel, so research will be most successful if it begins with the end result in mind.”


Solar Fuel with Synhelion & SWISS

As IATA’s Mikosz highlights, another opportunity for SAF production exists with renewable electricity and solar heat. Both need synthesis gas as an intermediate, hydrogen and carbon monoxide mixture. Industrial gas-to-liquid processes could then turn this into liquid fuel.

SWISS and the Lufthansa Group are working with Synhelion to develop sun-to-liquid (StL) fuel. Synhelion has developed a unique technology that will use solar heat to drive thermochemical processes for SAF production. Solar heat is the cheapest renewable energy source available. Solar-fuel plants are self-sustaining without requiring a power-grid connection so that production capacities can scale quickly and independently.

Happy Earth Day, everyone. It’s a lovely little world. Let’s keep it.