1 topic, 2 key figures, 3 startups to draw inspiration from
Since the first flight using blended biofuel took off in 2008, more than 150,000 flights have used biofuels. In May 2021, Air France-KLM flew an Airbus A350 from Paris to Montreal with a 16% mix of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in its fuel tanks, produced in France by Total from used cooking oil. This example illustrates the growing concern to limit aviation-related emissions. Indeed, aviation will account for 3.5% of global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2030, compared to just over 2.5% today. Thus, the development and promotion of biofuels for aviation will be essential to reducing carbon emissions of the industry.
Biofuels are fuels derived immediately from living matter, plants or waste. Depending on the type of biomass used, they could lower CO2 emissions by 20–98% compared to conventional jet fuel. The biofuels with the highest emission savings are those derived from photosynthetic algae (98% savings, not yet a mature technology) and non-food crops and forest residues (91-95% savings), taking into account the GHG emissions associated with the production of algal oil but not with transportation.
Worldwide, major aviation players are showing an increased interest in this technology. As a first step, some pioneering airports have already integrated bio-jet fuels into their refueling systems. Today, five airports have regular biofuel distribution: Bergen, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Oslo and Stockholm. Long-term agreements between airlines (like KLM and Lufthansa) and biofuel producers are another sign of their commitment to the use of SAF. They now cumulatively cover around 6 billion liters of fuel (1.6% of total annual consumption).
Meeting this demand will require further production facilities. This is why some airlines have invested directly in aviation biofuel refinery projects or biofuel startups. The first example is a partnership announced in October 2020, between Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech, on renewable jet fuel that will power planes from Shanghai and Delhi to Heathrow within two to three years. Recently, United Airlines has also joined the biofuel race, investing $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy. United Airlines will be both an investor and a regular customer of Fulcrum, a California-based company that has developed a technology turning municipal waste into sustainable aviation fuel. In January 2021, Qatar Airways announced it would invest in Byogy Renewables, a US startup that produces advanced biofuels (jet fuel and gasoline) from any source of bioethanol.
Corporate investment in biofuels is a rising and necessary trend, as most aviation biofuel production pathways are not yet mature. The four major ones are:
- HEFA bio-jets (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids): a process that uses oleochemical feedstocks such as oilseed crops and fats. It is currently the only technically mature and commercialized process. It is therefore expected that HEFA will be the main biofuel used in aviation in the short to medium term.
- FT fuels (gasification through the FischerTropsch): a method that uses municipal solid waste or woody biomass as feedstock.
- SIP fuels (Synthesised Iso-Paraffinic): biochemical conversion processes, such as the biological conversion of biomass (sugars, starches or lignocellulose-derived feedstocks) into longer chain alcohols and hydrocarbons.
- ATJ fuels (Alcohol-to-jet based on isobutanol): a process that includes “hybrid” thermochemical or biochemical technologies; the fermentation of synthesis gas; and catalytic reforming of sugars or carbohydrates.
However, before we witness the widespread use of biofuels in aviation, several challenges must be overcome. The major constraint is the high cost of the technologies compared to fossil-based jet fuels. For instance, the production cost of HEFA is about $1,500/ton of bio-jet fuels, and fuel costs are the largest overhead expense for airlines, accounting for an average of 22% of direct costs. Secondly, to fulfill the potential of aviation biofuels, further technological developments are needed.
Policy frameworks have a key role to play in this crucial early phase of SAF industry development. Without a supportive policy landscape, the aviation industry is unlikely to scale biofuel consumption to levels where costs fall and SAF becomes self-sustaining.
To conclude, the aviation biofuels market is likely to grow exponentially. Several startups are seizing this opportunity and collaborating with larger players, such as airlines. Government support, through policies and financial incentives, is essential to secure this growth potential and pave the way for more decarbonized air transport.
2 Key Figures
43 sustainable aviation fuel startups
registered by Traxcn
The sustainable aviation fuel market is expected to reach $15.3bn by 2030
The global aviation biofuel market was estimated at $66 million in 2020 and is expected to reach $15.3 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 72.4%
3 startups to draw inspiration from
This week, we identified three startups that we can draw inspiration from: BioRefly, Sundrop Fuels, and Fulcrum Bio-energy.
The German startup BioRefly is an operator of an industrial scale demonstration biorefinery to produce lignin-based aviation fuels. It is developing technologies allowing an increased and more economical utilization of selected renewable lignocellulosic raw materials for the production of second-generation biofuel for aviation.
This US startup is the developer of renewable energy technology. It is using a proprietary high-temperature bioreforming system to transform cellulosic biomass into clean, affordable, renewable gasoline, jet and diesel fuels. It uses a high-temperature solar gasification process that turns natural gas combined with any plant material into liquid transportation biofuels.
Fulcrum is an American startup that produces sustainable fuel intended to reduce reliance on imported oil. The company’s technology involves a process of converting municipal solid waste into low-carbon transportation, enabling clients to provide customers with low-cost and low-carbon drop-in fuel that is competitively priced with traditional petroleum fuel.