January 31, 2023

When I opened my local newspaper to the Nation & World section today, I found an AP article by Jon Gambrell on a test flight in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that used sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to power one of the two engines of a Boeing 777.  Flight 2646 flew for just under an hour over the coastline of the UAE after taking off from Dubai International Airport and heading into the Persian Gulf before circling to land.  The second of the plane’s engines ran on conventional jet fuel for safety.  Emirates Airline described the sustainable fuel as a blend that included fuel from Neste, a Finnish firm, and Virent, a Madison, Wisconsin-based company.  “This flight is a milestone moment for Emirates and a positive step for our industry as we work collectively to address one of our biggest challenges — reducing our carbon footprint,” said Adel al-Redha, Emirates’ chief operation officer.

When I looked online, I found that sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is produced from sustainable feedstocks and is very similar in its chemistry to traditional fossil jet fuel.  Using SAF results in a reduction in carbon emissions compared to the traditional jet fuel it replaces over the lifecycle of the fuel.  Typical feedstocks used are cooking oil and other non-palm waste oils from animals or plants, as well as solid waste from homes and businesses (packaging, paper, textiles, and food scraps) that would otherwise go to a landfill or to incineration.  Potential sources include forestry waste (waste wood) and fast growing energy crops (plants and algae).  SAF reduces the release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide typically burned off by engines in flight.  While SAF is currently more costly than traditional fossil jet fuel, the cost is a combination of the current availability of sustainable feedstocks and the continuing development of new production technologies.

Aviation releases only one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide produced by cars and trucks, but airplanes are used by far fewer people per day, meaning a higher per-capita source of greenhouse-gas emissions.  Jet fuel is one of the biggest expenses an airline face.  Emirates used over 5.7 million tons of jet fuel in 2022, costing US$3.7 billion out of its US$17 billion in annual expenses.  Jet fuel cost on average US$146 a barrel at the end of last week, according to S&P Global Platts.  It was not immediately clear how much the fuel used in the Emirates’ test on Monday cost per barrel.  The UAE is a major oil producer and OPEC member and is the host of the next United Nations (UN) climate negotiations (COP28) beginning in November.  OPEC has already been criticized for nominating the CEO of Abu Dhabi’s state oil company to lead the UN negotiations.

THOUGHTS:  A check online found the four major SAF companies are backed by airlines (who use the fuel) and companies who produce and refine fossil jet fuel.  The fossil fuel industry was one of the major players in alternative energy (solar, wind, and geothermal) during the late 20th century, and costs remained high and technology stilted until governments mandated a change.  If this is an example, SAF will not become viable until the public demands it and governments again step in to mandate change.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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