SAF (sustainable aviation fuel) is a biofuel used to power aircraft that has a lower carbon footprint than conventional jet fuel. SAF is produced from a variety of sustainable resources, including corn and grain, fats and oils, algae, forestry and agricultural residue, municipal solid waste, sawmill waste, and alcohols including ethanol. An estimated billion tons of biomass is sustainably collected each year in the United States, enough to produce 50-60 billion gallons of low-carbon biofuel.
Depending on the feedstock and technology used to produce this biofuel, using SAF instead of conventional fossil-based jet fuel can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, potentially by up to 80%. Engines that run on SAF can replace conventional turbine engines that use fossil-based jet fuels. For SAF to have a significant impact on the environment, however, its use must increase significantly.
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), SAF supply must increase from today’s 20.5 million liters to at least 449 billion liters per year by 2050 to achieve the UN’s net zero emissions goal. SAF currently has two major barriers that prevent it from wider adoption: production and cost. No one feedstock will be practical in all regions and produce enough SAF to meet demand. Production abilities vary from region to region, and not all potential feedstock sources are currently being considered. Although there are currently nine methods of producing SAF, it may take years for production plants using new technologies to meet consumer needs.
Because of low supply and high demand, the price is rising, which is another major obstacle. Today, SAF costs about three times as much as conventional kerosene. As a result of this price difference, many airlines are reluctant to invest significantly in SAF turbines or enter long-term contracts with SAF producers. Consequently, there is not yet enough demand for producers to justify major investment on their end.
Increasing SAF supply requires two direct business actions: collaboration and purchase of SAF certificates. While there are indeed successful SAF cooperations and partnerships, as yet there is no established SAF market. Neither are there any transparent and accurate processes for verifying SAF-related emissions reductions, which may make companies hesitate to adopt the technology.
The SAF Framework, published by the Smart Freight Centre (SFC), is a set of principles that helps organizations obtain SAF certificates. The framework is the first step in establishing a structured accounting and claiming system. As more companies purchase SAF certificates, the market will develop, naturally building a mature accounting and claims infrastructure.
The United States is also approaching a tipping point in SAF deployment, which will allow for significant growth opportunities to meet current and future demand. The SAF Grand Challenge is a collaboration between several U.S. departments and other federal government agencies to develop a comprehensive strategy for scaling up new sustainable aviation SAF technologies to commercial scale. This initiative is an important step toward global market growth.The current demand for SAF in the United States can be met with available feedstock, which allows approximately 250 production facilities to produce 18 billion gallons of SAF. If SAF demand continues to rise through 2050, the U.S. will need to produce 27 billion gallons of SAF and explore alternative SAF energy sources. This would require developing different feedstock supply chains.
Europe is also aware of the challenges of SAF production. In 2021, the European Commission published the ReFuelEU Aviation proposal, which was shortly followed by a proposal for an SAF mandate in the UK. If diesel facilities were to begin manufacturing SAF, Europe would meet its demand by 2027; otherwise, Europe may also have to rely on SAF imports. For long-term SAF needs, Europe may need to build more than 200 facilities to meet its demand. Most of these would use non-ethanol technologies.
In 2022, we now have a significant global awareness of greenhouse gas emissions and their negative impact on the environment. Great scientific and engineering breakthroughs have been made in the area of sustainable fuels. Although much more needs to be done, continuing cooperation between the scientific community, the aviation industry, and national and international governing bodies means that the goal of achieving net zero is possible very soon.