The need to decarbonise the aviation sector has never been clearer. Some technologies, such as hydrogen fuel and electric batteries, look promising as future solutions. But sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are already set to be a vital tool on the road to net zero. This is due to their superior energy density and better compatibility with established technologies and infrastructure.
SAF refers to hydrocarbon jet fuels derived from sustainable feedstocks. These include biomass, municipal solid waste, used cooking oil and captured carbon dioxide and renewable hydrogen.
These routes result in a significant overall reduction in carbon emissions relative to traditional fossil-based fuels. SAF production is picking up momentum across the world, with 2023 seeing a flurry of new sustainable aviation fuel deals.
To explore this surging industry, we focus on the five key growth drivers of sustainable aviation fuel production:
1. Passenger pressure driving SAF production
The pressure for a ‘greener’, more sustainable, approach to air travel is no longer contained to internal discussions between industry leaders. Today, passengers also want to know that the brands they patronise align with their own values.
For example, climate awareness is generating pressure for airlines to adopt more sustainable practices and maintain flight volume. ‘Flight shaming’ captures these attitudes well, where climate activists play on the public’s feelings of personal guilt and shame about flying, encouraging people to examine the environmental impact of their journeys.
These views aren’t just limited to climate-conscious individuals either. For businesses that fly, sustainable aviation offers a simple way to decarbonise their processes. Many of these businesses have pledged to go ‘net zero’ and have an active interest in sustainable flying.
2. International Air Transport Association (IATA) driving SAF production
From lightweighting to operational efficiencies, the aviation industry has already started its decarbonisation journey. However, further significant transformation will require a new approach to the fuels powering aircrafts and the wider aviation industry.
In 2022, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved a resolution stating that the global air transport industry would achieve carbon-neutral status by 2050.
An IATA report states that “sustainable aviation fuel could contribute roughly 65% of the reduction in emissions needed by aviation to reach net zero in 2050.” Comparing this to ‘infrastructure and operational efficiencies’, which the report believes could contribute 3%, showcases the importance of SAF in realising aviation’s net zero future.
IATA’s strategy towards net zero by 2050 requires a combination of solutions, with SAF adoption contributing to 65% of emissions reductions.
In addition, SAF could also provide the industry:
Greater levels of fuel security - by lessening reliance on oil and gas supply chains
Reduced non-CO2 based environmental impact of jet fuel, such as particulate matter emissions and contrails.
3. Legislation driving SAF production
Major economies such as the US and EU have set ambitious adoption targets for SAF:
To back up these targets, governments are providing clear incentives to adopt SAF for airlines, although these vary dramatically by region.
In the US, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) has introduced a new set of tax credits for SAF, rewarding companies for SAF production and use. Europe, on the other hand, is proposing to enact non-compliance penalties for failing to adopt SAF by a certain date.
Although there is currently little mandate for SAF in Asia, the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines has recently called for greater government legislation and incentives.
Overall, it is becoming increasingly prudent for airlines to source and use more SAF. Wherever you are, failure to comply will likely result in losing out on benefits or facing harsh penalties.
4. Secure feedstocks and ready technology driving SAF production
The current approved SAF ‘pathways’ provide airlines with the ability to dilute fossil-derived fuel with renewables. Known as ‘drop-ins’ due to their suitability for use in existing fuel infrastructure and engines, they are also a viable alternative to completely replace fossil-based fuels. These include:
How it works
Hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA)
This process uses vegetable oils, used cooking oils, or fats as a feedstock.
Converts syngas derived from renewable sources to syncrude, ready for upgrading to fuel.
Converts sugars to ethanol and other alcohols through fermentation.
Today, SAF blending limits certified by the American Society for Testing and Materials mean that up to 50% of commercial aviation fuel can come from renewable feedstock. This ensures that the total blend is similar enough to conventional jet fuel on a molecular level, with the correct ratio of linear and aromatic hydrocarbons for compatibility with existing engine technology. However, the technology for 100% drop-in SAF has already been proven. BioForming® S2A technology produces synthetic aromatic kerosene that is a key enabler to allowing the existing aircraft fleet to fly without fossil fuels.
Specially approved flights with Emirates (January 2022) and United (December 2021), flew with one engine using 100% sustainable fuel, enabled by BioForming® S2A technology. The next milestone – a transatlantic flight by Virgin Atlantic – has already been scheduled for November 2023.
BioForming® S2A technology developed by Virent with further development support from JM, has been crucial in enabling 100% SAF flights.
5. Collaboration driving SAF production
Reflecting the rapid growth of SAF, airlines themselves have also taken the unprecedented move to invest in SAF developers themselves. This alone demonstrates the huge demand they are anticipating as they look to secure their futures. For example, United Airlines has invested $100m to launch a SAF-focused fund to invest in new technologies and grow the production of SAF.
Collaboration between technology leaders is also a key accelerator for SAF adoption. The joint development of FT CANSTM by bp and Johnson Matthey has delivered a scalable, efficient, route to convert waste that would otherwise go to landfill to syncrude, a SAF pre-cursor.
Likewise, the close relationship between Virent and Johnson Matthey has enabled the development of a 100% drop-in SAF that is now ready for commercialisation.
The future of the aviation sector
The future of the aviation sector will rely on rapid decarbonisation. Sustainable aviation fuel offers the fastest, most convenient, technology-ready route there. Although there is currently a significant cost gap between SAF and fossil-based fuels, with airlines, governments, and passengers all seeking more sustainable means to fly, the industry is facing phenomenal drivers towards greater adoption of SAF.
With such a powerful combination of factors aligning to spur on adoption of SAF, there is seemingly little evidence to contradict the consensus that SAF will become a mainstay of the aviation sector within the next ten years.