For U.S. corn farmers, the rise of green jet fuel is their best hope of staving off an existential threat.
With battery-powered cars poised to slash gasoline demand by 2040, corn-ethanol makers need to find new markets, and fast. After all, roughly 40% of the country’s output of the grain is used to make the biofuel that’s blended into gasoline.
That’s why some producers are betting on a nascent technology that promises to use ethanol to power planes.
“It’s a lifeline,” said Patrick Gruber, chief executive officer of renewable fuels producer Gevo Inc., which is building an $850 million plant to make green jet fuel from corn. “It creates an outlet for ethanol and it’s actually huge.”
The search for new uses for ethanol represents a pivot for an industry that has been powered by the force of the U.S. government for almost half a century. Even with disputed environmental credentials, the federal government has subsidized corn ethanol as a way to curb tailpipe emissions and promote energy security.
Now President Joe Biden is throwing his weight behind electric vehicles, prompting biofuel makers and crop traders like Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. to pursue investments in sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.
If it all works out, the U.S. market for converting ethanol and other alcohols to jet fuel could grow to about $105 billion by 2050, according to BloombergNEF. That’s because the likes of United Airlines Holdings Inc. and other major carriers are under pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Read more: Airlines to Hand Passengers $5 Trillion Bill for Greener Travel
But for now, ethanol has yet to be used for aviation fuel at commercial scale, and it’s not even clear whether ethanol-derived SAF will be eligible for tax breaks.
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