Is Sustainable Fuel a Reality?

by PBJ Staff / Oct 17, 2018

Aircraft Contrail

Aircraft contrail against a blue sky. Picture Source.

Pollution and sustainability are huge issues in the aviation industry, and they always have been. For every enthusiast championing the magnificence of flying, there’s another voice chanting for change.

Concerns about the impact aircraft can have on the environment continue to rear their
heads, even when the aviation industry has made strides to reduce the impact on the environment. For instance, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) scheme which is coming into effect from 2020 will massively offset the impact of airlines’ emissions.

Specific aircraft have been created with pollution in mind, too. Take NASA’s ‘Double-Bubble’ D8 aircraft, which was designed with the aim of reducing noise pollution and fuel consumption.

A new kind of fuel

Neste Clean Fuel

Neste and Air BP enter into innovative industry collaboration to support sustainable aviation fuel supply chain development. Picture Source.

Clearly, pollution and sustainability are big issues. The next logical step, it seems, is to tackle fuel itself. This is exactly the thinking behind a joint venture from Neste and Air BP. The two have linked up to instigate a new scheme which should make sustainable aviation fuel more widely available, replacing existing resources.

It’s a smart pairing. Neste already have decades of experience with blending sustainable jet fuel, and Air BP are efficiency specialists in creating supply chains. With a project of this magnitude, the two will complement each other perfectly. That’s certainly what Neste’s Executive Vice President in Renewable Products, Kaisa Hietala, seems to think.

‘Working together, we can find the best ways of developing robust supply chains to ensure that renewable jet fuel is more widely accessible,’ said Ms Hietala.

‘We expect our collaboration will not only be able to provide a solution to better matching supply to increased demand for renewable jet fuel but also delivers distinct advantages to airlines by significantly decreasing their environmental footprint.’

Changing the industry

So how exactly will the new fuel work? And what kind of effect could it have on the industry?

C-141 Starlifter Contrail

C-141 Starlifter Contrail. Picture Source.

The key is primarily what the fuel is made from. Like all good sustainable goods, the source of sustainable fuel is from waste. The waste feedstocks which are used to create the fuel and this results in carbon savings. According to some supporters of the movement, it could mean a reduction of as much as 60% in carbon emissions.

Instead of using regular techniques and resources, the fuel is created using a mixture of regular kerosene with renewable hydrocarbons. These can be found in our day-to-day lives in everyday items such as cooking oil, making it more common than you may think. This qualifies as an A1 type fuel, which means companies and private flyers have permission to use it freely. And on a fundamental level, it’s that simple: this technique can massive reduce the consumption of crude oil.

The move comes amid increasing pressure on the industry as a whole to provide new solutions to this perceived issue. Indeed, this latest venture from Neste and Air BP is not the only potential adaption of existing fuels. There are many different types of sustainable fuel being floated.

Drop-in jet fuel has similar properties to conventional fuel, but it isn’t made from petroleum. This is an easy fit for existing aircraft, and therefore an appealing option for private owners who want a one-fit solution for their existing models.

The most important thing is that these modern fuels are alternative – in that they are not made from petroleum – and sustainable, meaning they can provide a solution that will last long-term.

‘Support across the entire supply chain’

It won’t be easy, though. Just because something is better for the environment it doesn’t mean companies will be happy to use it. Any company looking to create a more viable fuel for the future will have to combat the existing producers of traditional aircraft fuel. They’ll also have to get past all of the usual barrier to entry.

Air BP Chief Executive Officer Jon Platt aired similar thoughts. He stressed that the aim was to ‘continue to support our customers with their low carbon ambitions’, whilst acknowledging the tricky road ahead:

‘The aviation industry’s carbon reduction targets can only be achieved with support from across the entire supply chain and, by bringing our experience and expertise together, we are looking to drive change by promoting and securing the supply of sustainable aviation fuel.’

But there are already signs that companies will be forced to change their current fuel habits, even if they don’t decide to do so themselves. Leading the way is the Norwegian government, who are planning to implement new rules starting from 2020 for all airlines. These rules will ensure that airlines meet minimum requirements in terms of how much sustainable fuel must be used in their aircraft.

First transatlantic flight

Richard Branson & Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic recently completed the airline’s initial commercial transatlantic flight using sustainable biofuel. Picture Source.

Many companies are taking the initiative to come up with their own forward-thinking solutions. Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic is known for being a forward-thinking company so it’s no surprise to see that they’re also heavily involved in the sustainable fuel business. In fact, Virgin Atlantic recently completed the airline’s initial commercial transatlantic flight using sustainable biofuel.

The fuel itself was created using waste industrial gases, making it vastly more sustainable than traditional fuels. And the flight was a resounding success, which certainly bodes well for the future.

Whether the solution comes from the merged business venture between Neste and Air BP, Virgin Atlantic, or another source in the aviation industry, it certainly looks like sustainable fuel is going to play a huge role in the future.

Companies are already eager to show that they’re environmentally conscious, demonstrated recently with a major international crackdown on the use of products which use unnecessary plastic. If this pattern is anything to go by, we could expect to be flying with sustainable fuel sooner rather than later.

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