Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Renewable Jet Fuels on the Runway

By Susan Pond

Sustainable jet fuels are needed to constrain the aviation industry’s greenhouse emissions.

Technology has opened up unimaginable economic spaces and transformed nations that were able to seize the strategic competitive advantage. Canals, agriculture, printing presses, steam engines, electricity, motor vehicles, aviation, computers, the internet and genomics provide excellent examples.

Sustainability could be the next new economy driven by technology. Sustainability is our concern because we need to increase the productivity of our planet’s finite or polluting resources, such as carbon, water, agricultural land and minerals.

Transportation, a fundamental enabler of development, must become part of this new economy. Currently, transportation consumes 60% of global oil production and accounts for 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Air transport of people and goods accounts for 10% of transport oil consumption and 2% of greenhouse gas emissions. As global population and GDP increase, air transport will continue to grow by 5% year on year to ~ 500% more revenue tonne kilometres by 2050 compared with 2010. But the sector cannot grow without reining in greenhouse gas emissions.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been implementing a two-pronged strategy of fuel efficiency and alternative fuels for the past few years. Each strategy is equally important in reaching IATA’s targets of carbon-neutral growth beyond 2020 and a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 compared with 2005.

Aviation has no choice for engine power into the next few decades other than liquid, energy-dense jet fuel. Airlines spend at least 30% of their direct operational costs on fuel, at current oil prices. These two facts are placing the aviation industry on the frontier of “exploration” for sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) as critical strategic growth enablers.

SAF are generic jet fuels. They are compatible with existing aircraft, engines and fossil fuel infrastructure. Feedstocks for SAF include non-food biomass or carbon sources, such as waste streams from agriculture, forestry, households or industry, and energy crops such as grasses or algae. SAF must meet strict sustainability and fuel qualification standards. They are produced by biorefineries as part of a product suite of biobased chemicals and fuels, akin to the product suites from fossil oil refineries.

Two fuel qualification standards for SAF (produced from plant oils or from syngas) have been certified by the international organisation, ASTM. They have been used on demonstration flights by international and Australian airlines but not yet reached large-scale production or price parity. A step change is needed.

Australia has the opportunity to take a leadership position in SAF production at scale. Australia consumed 7 GL of jet fuel in 2010 (13% of total transport liquid fuel). The demand is predicted to double by 2030 to 14 GL (20% of total transport) as air traffic increases and road transport switches to electricity or gas.

Australia’s strategic advantages for developing its own SAF industry and the likely economic benefits are highlighted in several studies, the most recent being the Green Growth – Energy study just released by the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

To advance the development of the SAF industry, the public and private sectors joined forces in August 2012 to form the Australian Initiative for Sustainable Aviation Fuels (AISAF). AISAF’s working groups have taken up challenges that need to be met, such as overcoming the price differential between SAF and fossil jet fuel, the impact of Australia’s declining refining infrastructure, and ensuring reliable supply of feedstocks that meet sustainability criteria.

Addressing these challenges requires new technologies, supply chains and manufacturing lines, more productive use of natural endowments and resources, and astute business models, capital, project integration, financing and policy. Addressing these challenges requires teamwork by strategic partners in Australia and internationally, including R&D organisations, public and private companies, most government departments, and regional and local communities.

In 2012, the economic benefit of aviation to Australia was $50 billion. Increasing the productivity of carbon is critical to the future of this industry.

Dr Susan Pond AM FTSE chairs the Australian Initiative for Sustainable Aviation Fuels and the Clean Technology Innovation Program Committee. She is Adjunct Professor in Sustainability at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Vice President of ATSE and a Board member of Innovation Australia, ANSTO and Biotron Ltd.