An Airbus powered by cooking oil: Is this the future of aviation?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Andrea Willige, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • An A380 Airbus recently flew for three hours with one engine powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), made from used cooking oil and other fats.
  • Switching from petroleum-based kerosene to sustainable fuels plays a big part in aviation’s efforts to cut CO2 emissions in the race to net-zero.
  • But supply and demand for SAFs is still fledgling and needs both the aviation industry and policy-makers’ support to reach the scale needed to make a dent in emissions.

Used cooking oil is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when you think about your next holiday flight. But that could soon change. Airbus has just completed its first test flight of an A380 jumbo jet with one engine powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The fuel used was a mix of used cooking oil and other waste fats, purified to extract sulphur and other contaminants.

Decarbonizing a hard-to-abate industry

The aviation industry is widely acknowledged as one of the hardest to decarbonize and its share in global emissions is around 2%.

The industry has already made major investments in electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft. Switching to alternative propulsion and sustainable fuels plays another big part in its efforts to cut CO2 emissions in the race to reach net-zero by 2050. The first test flight with bio jet fuel goes back to 2008. By the end of 2019, more than 200,000 commercial flights had used SAF, mainly blended with kerosene.

Airbus has now added further momentum by flying the largest passenger aircraft in the world for three hours using a mix of kerosene and SAF. One of the outer engines was powered entirely by SAF during the test. The A380 joins its smaller relatives, the Airbus A350 and the A319neo, which went through similar tests last year.

What is SAF?

Sustainable aviation fuel comes in a variety of guises, all of which have in common that they can deliver performance on a par with kerosene jet fuel but with a fraction of the CO2 emissions.

SAF can be made from a wide variety of sources. These include corn grain, algae, agricultural and forestry residues, solid waste and dedicated energy crops. Many SAFs contain fewer aromatic components than kerosene, enabling them to burn cleaner. This improves aircraft performance and also reduces emissions of pollutants other than CO2.

SAF could contribute between 53% and 71% of the sector’s required emission reductions by 2050, according to a 2021 report from the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).

Chart showing importance of emissions reduction.
What an aggressive sustainable fuel deployment scenario would look like by 2050. Image: ATAG

Ramping up the SAF market

As with so many sustainable and renewable energy sources, SAF still comes at a high cost: SAF currently costs around four times as much as conventional jet fuel. As a result, supplies are limited, with production currently estimated at less than 0.1% of global jet fuel consumption. Even the expected increase to about 3% of forecast demand in 2030 will fall short of targets set by legislators such as the European Union in its Green Deal, according to BloombergNEF. More demand would boost production and bring prices down.

Another issue is that not all SAFs are created equal. Some production methods are more CO2-heavy than others, as a working paper from the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) has pointed out. The key will be to make the most of those methods that offer the best greenhouse gas savings, the ICCT concludes.

Climate change

What is the World Economic Forum doing to help aviation meet net zero goals?

Through the Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow coalition, stakeholders across the European aviation value-chain have aligned on key policy proposals to inform the RefuelEU initiative. Taken together, this industry-backed policy package provides a clearly defined strategy to scaling SAF in the EU – focused on measures that collectively increase both SAF supply and demand signals for creating a balanced market.

Developed through the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow coalition, this policy report is accessible on the Forum’s digital library and signed by Airbus Group, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Deutsche Post DHL Group, Dubai Airports, Groupe ADP, Heathrow Airport, International Airlines Group, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Ørsted, Royal Dutch Shell, Royal Schiphol Groupe, SkyNRG, The Boeing Company, and Velocys, Inc.

However, the importance of SAF as a major route towards decarbonizing the aviation sector remains. This was underlined when 60 members of the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition came together in autumn 2021 to commit to achieving broad industry adoption of SAFs by 2030. The aim is to tackle what the signatories call the “chicken and egg” problem around supply and demand of SAFs, supported by both industry and policy initiatives. The coalition is targeting a share of 10% of global jet aviation fuel to be SAF by 2030.

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: