Science & Technology



The airline industry's biggest climate challenge: a lack of clean fuel

Ben Elgin, Bloomberg News on

Published in Science & Technology News

In a glimmer of progress for the daunting task of reducing air travel’s climate impact, a newly built plant in rural Georgia is expected to begin pumping out the world’s first commercial quantities of a new type of cleaner jet fuel this month.

The $200 million plant from LanzaJet Inc. will be the first to turn ethanol into a fuel compatible with jet engines. The facility is one of many efforts around the globe attempting to crack one of the biggest problems facing greener air travel: finding and developing cleaner feedstocks that can generate enormous quantities of fuel without triggering ripple effects that end up worsening the climate and biodiversity crises.

Progress thus far has been very limited. Efforts to produce new types of cleaner fuels require hundreds of millions of dollars. But investors have remained wary with would-be plants routinely suffering lengthy delays and struggling to become operational.

“We need to scale-up by 1,000-fold,” says Hemant Mistry, director of net zero transition for the International Air Transport Association, which has pledged that the aviation industry will erase its carbon emissions by 2050, mostly by using huge quantities of cleaner jet fuel.

At its new facility dubbed Freedom Pines Fuels, LanzaJet plans to produce 9 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) per year. In one sense, that’s just a tiny step forward: It would take 100 of these plants to fulfill just 1% of the ravenous appetite of the world’s commercial air carriers, which consumed 90 billion gallons of jet fuel last year.

But it provides a glimpse of one direction the clean fuel industry wants to go. Most SAF today is derived from animal fats and waste oils, which are relatively scarce. Used cooking oil is already widely collected for road transportation with only modest room for growth, while a robust market has long converted animal fats into ingredients for pet food and detergents. Strong demand from aviation could push these other industries to switch to climate-harming ingredients, like palm oil, warn environmental groups.


This has left aviation giants scouring the world for alternatives to meet their climate commitments. IAG SA, the parent company of British Airways, has pledged to up its SAF usage to 10% by 2030. Last year, it gobbled up 17.6 million gallons, or 0.66%, of its total fuel. While that’s a tiny amount, it eclipses US airlines. United Airlines Holdings Inc. has led US carriers, but got less than 0.1% of its fuel from clean sources last year. All of IAG’s cleaner fuel last year came from traditional feedstocks like waste oils, according to Aaron Robinson, the company’s vice president for sustainable aviation fuel in the US.

But that could soon change. Three years ago, British Airways partnered with LanzaJet, investing in Freedom Pines’ construction and teaming up on a clean fuels facility in the UK, which they hope will come online by 2028. Both plants will deploy technology known as alcohol-to-jet, which uses chemical reactions to upgrade ethanol into a potent fuel capable of powering jet turbines. IAG hopes to consume its first SAF from the Georgia plant later this year.

“Diversification matters,” says IAG’s Robinson. “That’s why alcohol-to-jet is an area that is quite attractive to us.”

It could sidestep a thorny issue facing some of the industry’s other clean fuel efforts. In the US, airlines are advocating for rules that could allow corn ethanol to qualify for SAF tax credits. It’s contentious because renewable fuels policies enacted in the US nearly two decades ago have led to about 40% of the country’s crop being turned into fuel.


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