Two New Sustainable Jet Fuels Might Be the Future of Flight
As the race to develop a permanent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) that will eventually replace kerosene continues, two new developments shed light on how quickly the technology is advancing.
A company called Enviva, which is touted as the world’s largest producer of biomass, has invested in biomass factories all throughout the southeastern U.S. These factories produce wood pellets out of trees and the byproducts of foresting, such as tree tops, limbs and other scraps. The wood pellets are then used as fuel. Currently, because of the European Union’s stated goal to move away from fossil fuels, these wood pellets are mostly being exported to Europe, which has created a large demand not just for wind and solar, but biomass.
But in September, Enviva announced a partnership with Alder Fuels – a clean energy company – that will give Enviva up to 750,000 metric tons of wood biomass, which will be processed in the company’s new Greencrude production facility that opens in 2024 in the southeastern U.S. According to company data, that translates to 37 million gallons of SAF, equivalent to somewhere around 2,000 five-hour flights. And what does this mean for planes?
Back in 2016, Alaska Airlines successfully flew the first-ever commercial jet that was powered by biomass made from wood. In 2022, airlines have committed the airline industry to finding new sources of climate-friendly fuels. Enter wood pellets.
Essentially, the sugar from wood pellets – again, tree scraps and branches – is removed, and yeast is added to the remaining product. Through the magic of chemistry, this wood product converts to isobutanol, and a biofuel is born that is able to accelerate an airplane.
The wood pellet industry has its own share of detractors, though. The Dogwood Alliance of North Carolina has been fighting wood pellet production facilities in the South, and recently celebrated the decision of a company to pull out of making a pellet factory in Lumberton, North Carolina. The alliance claims that the amount of wood harvested to make wood pellets – and the loss of a carbon-drinking forest – counterbalances the gain that the aviation industry sees from using SAFs. There are also claims out there that say burning biomass is as dirty as burning fossil fuels.
NPR did a piece in 2021 where they visited Northampton County, where the Enviva plant is, and found some residents concerned about the dust and noise coming out of these plants into the neighboring community. And a North Carolina conservationist named Andy Wood told NPR that “The carbon footprint is enormous, which is why this does not work as a renewable source of energy. That is a contrived and fabricated claim.”
The other potential innovation in air travel involves electric planes. As it stands now, electric planes are only useful over short distances, and with a small number of passengers, due to the weight of the batteries. The ES-30, made by Heart Aerospace in Sweden, can fly up to 125 miles all-electric, and double that using an electric-hybrid model. Canada’s main airline, Air Canada, has bought 30 of these planes for regional flights.
But electric planes are still in the early stages of development. At the University of Michigan, researcher Gökçin Çinar was awarded $50,000 to further develop electric planes by looking at the design of the hull and the wings, and by trying to find a way to shrink the weight of the batteries.
“We want our systems, our aircraft, to be as light as possible, but with batteries being so heavy, it’s giving us a serious challenge,” Çinar said in an article published by Michigan State University.
Of course, corn and other plants are another option for SAF. Virgin Atlantic recently announced it would purchase 10 million gallons of the fuel that’s made from separated industrial corn. And a year ago, United Airlines flew the first commercial flight where one of its engines was filled with SAF fuel made out of corn and other plants. But as with a lot of new green technology, time will tell how clean the industry really is.