Outlook for renewable jet fuel


Conservatives have long argued that if we demanded that our modern technological society conform to standards that would reduce damage to the environment, we would have to lose all that modern technology. According to them, the only way to reduce the damage modern life does to the environment is to live as our ancestors did in the 19th century, and they rely on people to weigh the convenience of modern technology against the possibility of living sustainably. , and always choose the first. That is, when choosing between dirty technology and a clean environment, dirty technology will always win.

Of course, environmentalists, scientists and engineers have shown over the years that this is the wrong choice. All that technology came from clever ideas someone came up with, and people are still thinking. New ideas have helped dirty technologies become cleaner and more efficient, so keeping the technology doesn’t require ruining the environment. The development of hybrids and fully electric cars, as well as LED lighting, are examples of this.

With the mother of all environmental crises looming as most people continue their habits in denial, it means we need to stop using fossil fuels as soon as possible to avoid catastrophe. While the use of solar and wind energy makes it conceivable to eliminate the use of fossil fuels to power our homes and even our cars, there is one type of modern transportation that poses a huge challenge in eliminating or even reducing dependence of fossil fuels. This is jet transport, which is responsible for the production of no less than 3.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The fuel per passenger burned in a single flight from New York to London exceeds the annual fuel consumption of most people in the developing world. Still, modern people, who are used to getting to virtually anywhere in the world in less than a day or two, won’t give up flight as a mode of transportation. How can we tackle this problem?

Unfortunately, the chances of air transport being transformed through the use of electricity, as is currently the case with land transport, are between very small and non-existent. Even the most advanced batteries do not have the energy density of jet fuel. The only hope (at least in the short term — and that’s about all we have right now) is to find a way to make jet fuel, not from petroleum, but from renewable sources. We’ve already done this with other fuels – ethanol from corn or agricultural waste added to gasoline, and diesel from used cooking oil. The idea is to leave the old fossil fuels in the ground and use fuels that have recently gone through the planet’s carbon cycle. When done properly, no additional carbon dioxide is released.

The initiative to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is widespread and there are a number of strategies to pursue this goal. President Biden has set a goal for the US to produce 3 billion gallons of SAF by 2030 and 35 billion gallons by 2050. By 2021, the biofuel industry will have produced just 33 million gallons of SAF, so there is still a long way to go. However, one flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in December 2021 was the first passenger flight operated entirely by SAF. This is a hopeful sign that this strategy will work.

Producing jet fuel from biomass is different from the idea behind adding ethanol to gasoline because you can’t just add ethanol to jet fuel and expect it to have the same energy density (it isn’t) or even be compatible with a jet system that optimized for a specific jet fuel formulation. Simple fermentation will not provide a substitute for jet fuel. Multiple processing strategies are being pursued for converting waste cooking oil and other biomass feedstocks into SAF, and not all of them are expected to be successful. However, in order to continue flying without contributing to the destruction of Earth’s climate, at least one (and hopefully a few) must be successful.



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