airplane in sky

Sustainable Jet Fuel is No Longer Pie in the Sky

Brian McCowan, Zondits staff, 8/25/2022

Revolutionary developments in aviation jet fuel promise an 80-90% reduction in harmful emissions. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is a class of fuels under development that capture CO2 directly from the air and use it in a chemical process to produce non-fossil jet fuel. Private technology companies and the U.S. Air Force are partners in these efforts, and major airlines such as United support the efforts. The announcement of funding through the Inflation Reduction Act promises to accelerate these efforts.

Jet fuel is a further refined form of kerosene, which is in turn close to the diesel fuel in everyday vehicle use. This might lead one to think that the current focus is on biofuels sourced from soybeans or other crops. Although that development is also being worked on, the real action is in synthetic jet fuel that is formulated through CO2 electrolysis.

The electrolysis process being used captures CO2 directly from the air. This process has long been considered too expensive for fuel production, but a breakthrough was realized when Oxford University researchers developed a less-expensive process using iron-based catalysts. That process is now being further developed and tested in the U.S.

Zondits has previously reported on electric airplane development for small commuter and local freight delivery aircraft. That development continues, but what is exciting about this synthetic fuel is that it does not put further pressure on the rare earth materials, such as Lithium, Nickel, and Cobalt that are being used in current battery formulas. Aviation web magazine Simple Flying quoted Nicholas Flanders, CEO of Twelve, one of the companies developing the new fuel, “We’ve essentially electrified the fuel instead of the planes through our electrochemical process.” Flanders predicts that the progress being made today will lead to the production of billions of gallons of low-impact fuel within the next decade.

The U.S. Air Force has completed early testing of the fuel and deems the innovation a success. “One of our main goals with this project was to create a clean jet fuel that enhances security and energy independence without sacrificing operational readiness. The successful completion of the project proves that efficiency and environmental responsibility are not mutually exclusive,” Roberto Guerrero, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Operational Energy, said in a public statement.

One of the advantages of the fuel is that it is reported to require little or no changes in the infrastructure needed to refuel aircraft and no alterations to aircraft using the fuel. Simple Flying further reports that the International Air Transport Association believes the proliferation of SAF will accomplish as much as 65% of its net-zero by 2050 target. While much of the focus on low-impact transportation has been on cars and trucks, it’s encouraging to see positive developments in the sky.

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