Burned by climate change, the aeronautical industry is mobilizing for a sustainable fuel

FARNBOROUGH, England – In the early days of the Farnborough Airshow, Britain suffered record temperatures and the mercury topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit, people retreated as much as possible from the burnt-out trails to the company’s air-conditioned cabins.

It was nature that was a timely reminder of the biggest threat to the aviation industry: concerns over climate change driving an urgent need to decarbonise flights.

Boeing Vice President Brian Yutko, chief engineer for sustainability and future mobility, said the shift to more environmentally friendly flight “is going to be the fundamental, decades-long challenge for the industry.” .

“It’s a challenge for a generation,” he said.

In interviews, senior Airbus executives passionately tried to convey that the most immediate need was for sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF – a term for jet fuel made from recycled carbon-based biofuels such as than wood waste or produced synthetically from carbon captured in the air.

Today, various startups produce just enough SAF to meet a mere 0.1% of the fuel requirements of the global aircraft fleet. Yet the industry plans to increase that figure to at least 10% by 2030 and 70% by 2050 if it wants to get closer to its goal of net zero emissions by mid-century.

Although Airbus is working on cutting-edge technologies such as hydrogen flight that could one day be part of the solution, the urgent action required now is to begin large-scale industrial production of SAF.

Of course, Airbus and Boeing make planes, not fuels. Their future depends on SAF, but they won’t actually produce the stuff. What are they doing?

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury got angry when the role of manufacturers was called into question: “We don’t just sit back and say it’s not my problem. That’s my problem!” he insisted.

“If the consumption of SAF does not increase, we will have a problem later. SAF is the only way to reduce carbon emissions now,” he said. “We need SAF now.”

This is also Boeing’s point of view.

“In all adoption scenarios for these more advanced technologies, we need a massive increase in scale for sustainable fuels,” Yutko said.

“The problem with sustainable fuels right now is that there aren’t enough of them,” he said. “We have to find ways to scale it.”

Transmit the message

Environmental sustainability was a major theme at the airshow with multiple panel discussions and presentations by all major aerospace companies.

Some doubt that the industry can achieve its goals.

Jim Harris, who heads the US aerospace unit of business advisory firm Bain & Co., wrote a pessimistic op-ed in the trade journal Aviation Week just before Farnborough opened.

He cited the conclusion of a Bain study that “despite aggressive assumptions about improvements in technology and efficiency over the next few decades, SAF production…will fail to meet the needs of aviation, below even government incentives and mandates”.

In contrast, Airbus sales chief Christian Scherer in an interview was bubbling with optimism.

“I’m super encouraged to see that our ecosystem as a whole is starting to understand the story,” he said. “It’s not a matter of Airbus saying hydrogen and Boeing saying methanol or SAF.”

“Sorry, I’m getting a little romantic, but I just find it super motivating to be in a leadership position in this industry as we make this transition,” Scherer added.

Scherer, who took a few new jet orders at the show, said environmental sustainability was a priority for Airbus this week than sales.

“For us, the air show is a much more urgent post-pandemic opportunity to tell the world – institutions, politicians, legislators, etc. – what our industry is doing to be a responsible global citizen and map our roadmap to decarbonized flight,” he said.

“What we need for the good of this great industry is for the world to see us take the bull by the horns and not just confront the problem, but lead this transformation,” Scherer added. “That’s a much, much more important message to get across in the lounge than the number of A320s or the number of MAXs sold.”

Catalyze change

CEO Faury detailed some of the intense efforts he has made, repeatedly meeting with airlines, governments and energy companies to push the SAF agenda forward.

Airbus has just entered into a $200 million joint venture with the Australian airline Qantas to produce SAF.

And Faury met with executives from French energy giant Total and helped convince them of the potential airline market for SAF. Total has now partnered with a Japanese oil company with the aim of producing 300,000 tonnes of SAF per year.

“We are not yet at the point where SAF is delivered. It’s frustrating,” conceded Faury. “But these are big projects. They are spending money now.

“We’re at the point where big investors, big companies, are putting their money in my mouth: that is, SAF has to come into the industry now,” he added.

“It’s a big change,” insisted Faury. “Three years ago, nobody was interested in investing in SAFs… If people invest now, in five years there will be a lot of SAFs hitting aircraft fuel tanks.”

Boeing is making a parallel effort.

“We’re not trying to be a fuel producer,” said Chris Raymond, senior vice president and chief sustainability officer at Boeing. “Our role as one of the leading manufacturers in aviation has to be to try to catalyze that; in some cases, bring the right parties together and bring the right people to the table.

If the aviation industry succeeds in pushing the production of SAF on a large scale, another difficult realization must soon follow, namely that SAF will be much more expensive than today’s petroleum-based jet fuel.

Boeing’s Yutko was part of the expert advisory group that reviewed a June report from the International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent source of technical and policy expertise on clean transportation.

He analyzed three scenarios for the future of aviation, ranging from moderate to aggressive action. The middle scenario assumes that aggressive government mandates, incentives, and fuel taxes will drive widespread adoption of SAFs at 70% of demand.

With these assumptions, he concluded that fuel prices would increase by 17% by 2030 and that aviation carbon emissions in 2050 would be half of what they were in 2019.

Only even more aggressive actions would achieve the goal of net zero emissions.

Starting from 0.1% of global aviation SAF requirements and aiming to produce 70% or more will clearly be a huge challenge.

A huge industrial infrastructure to produce it must be created almost from scratch.

“But if you don’t start, it won’t happen,” Scherer said.