Accelerating the Adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Accelerating the Adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Today, aviation accounts for around 2-3% of global CO2 emissions (~720 Mt), and as air travel is expected to double in the next 15 years, these numbers are expected to grow rapidly.

Industry bodies like the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) have taken positive steps to reduce the GHG emissions of air transportation, and the aviation industry is committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. With many promising innovations, such as electric aviation and hydrogen-capable engines still in the early stages of development, the industry is in dire need of more immediate ways to decarbonize. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has emerged as the most practical solution to help the aviation industry reach its ambitious climate goal.

Benefits of SAF

SAF is made from 100% renewable raw materials, such as used cooking oil (UCO) and animal fat waste. In the fuel’s neat form and over its lifecycle, SAF can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by up to 80% when compared to conventional fossil jet fuel . Neste believes that the global SAF demand will reach 15 million tons per year by 2030, and IATA estimates that SAF could contribute to 65% of the emissions reductions needed for the industry to reach net zero by 2050.

Michael Sargeant - Neste
Michael Sargeant – Neste

Currently, SAF can be blended at up to 50% with traditional jet fuel. However, flights using 100% SAF have already taken place. For example, Neste has been collaborating with engine manufacturers including Airbus, Boeing, Bell Textron, airlines, and other partners to test the viability of using 100% SAF.

From an operations and maintenance perspective, SAF is a drop-in solution that allows airlines to reduce emissions with no new investments or modifications to the engines needed. Not only is the process of introducing SAF seamless, there was also no change to the customer experience.

Today, SAF is already used by some of the world’s largest airlines and is available at some of the international hubs. Neste’s SAF is available at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Frankfurt Airport (FRA), Amsterdam Airport (AMS), Changi Airport (SIN) and Narita International Airport (NRT). We also work with industry-leading fuel distributors to provide our SAF to business aviation customers.

Expanding SAF Supply and Reducing Costs

The primary obstacles to the adoption of SAF are limited supply and its higher price compared to fossil jet fuel. As the global leader in SAF production, these are two issues that Neste is leading the charge in to address.

Currently, Neste’s SAF production capability reaches

1 million tons (365 million gallons) per annum after the opening of Neste’s Singapore refinery expansion. After the finalization of the Rotterdam refinery modification, the annual SAF production capability will grow to 1.5 million tons (515 million gallons) per annum in early 2024 and to 2.2 million tons (760 million gallons) in 2026 when the Rotterdam refinery expansion will be completed.

The demand for SAF is growing rapidly, driven by higher climate ambitions and supportive regulation. Achieving economies of scale will play a key role in decreasing the price of SAF over the next decade. However, in the near term, continued support on the policy side will be needed to maintain adoption momentum.

The SAF Blenders Tax Credit in the IRA is a welcomed recognition of the role SAF plays in decarbonization and the challenges it faces. Policies like this are crucial for increasing SAF supply, as they incentivize increased production.

Ultimately, a long-term, stable incentive is needed to speed the transition away from fossil fuels, especially in hard-to-abate sectors like aviation. This is also why the role of states and adopting clean fuel standards is so important. The U.S. West Coast and Canada are leaders in promoting the use and production of renewable fuels because of their clean fuel programs.

Looking Ahead

Today, the Hydrotreated Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) process is the most used pathway for SAF production. Reports show that immediately available HEFA technology using waste and residue materials, such as UCO and animal fat waste, have the potential to replace 20% of fossil jet fuel. Other SAF pathways will ultimately be needed to expand supply and meet the growing demand from operators.

Gasification-synthesis and alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) technologies are expected to mature by the mid-2020s. Also, several new feedstocks are showing great promise. At Neste, we are exploring the potential of using algae, municipal solid waste, lignocellulosic, and power to liquid to produce SAF. Together with the HEFA process, these technologies will help to increase the availability of SAF globally and put the aviation industry on a sustainable path to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The IPCC report published earlier this year called for urgent climate action to tackle the climate emergency — if we act now, we can still secure a livable sustainable future for our children, but that window is closing rapidly. Solutions like SAF enable us to act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Making aviation more sustainable requires collaboration across the entire industry ecosystem to adopt, endorse and advocate solutions like SAF, so our future generations can enjoy the many benefits of flying like we do now.

Michael Sargeant is the vice president of renewable aviation Americas for Neste. Located in Houston, Sargeant leads a team across the Americas to increase the distribution and accessibility of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), an effective solution to help the aviation industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sargeant has more than 20 years of experience in the aviation industry and he has held technical and operational positions in various industry associations.