With the IPCC warning against growing crops for fuel, Angeli Mehta reports on how LanzaTech, SkyNRG and Velocys are trying to get the next generation of aviation biofuels to scale
The first flight using a blend of kerosene and biofuel took place back in 2008. Eleven years and another 150,000 flights on, how much further forward is the industry?
The International Energy Agency estimates that aviation biofuel production was 15 million litres in 2018. To meet the 10% of consumption envisaged in sustainable development scenarios, production needs to reach 31 billion litres by 2030.
So how will it be possible to achieve the scale-up needed?
There has been a bit of hesitation because there are no quick returns
US-based LanzaTech, which makes aviation fuel from industrial waste emissions, has just secured $72m from Novo Holdings, an achievement its chief sustainability officer Freya Burton describes as “significant”.
“There has been a bit of hesitation because there are no quick returns,” says Burton. It has taken LanzaTech almost 14 years to get from the lab to commercial scale. Investment is tied to policy and the policy landscape has not been stable, she says.
The first generation of biofuels used crops like sugar cane and grains as feedstock – pushing up food prices and leading to changes in land use – and understandably led to a backlash.
“There is a terror of getting it wrong again,” says Burton, but equally a danger that pursuing the perfect solution “may be the enemy of the good because the legislative environment is so detailed and so prescriptive. Concern about unintended consequences means investors are nervous; they fear policy might change.”
Indeed, the special IPCC report on land use, published in August, said: “Bioenergy needs to be carefully managed to avoid risks to food security, biodiversity and land degradation. Desirable outcomes will depend on locally appropriate policies and governance systems.”
It points out that some waste streams that are currently used to make alternative fuels are not sufficient. One example is tallow, a by-product of the meat and dairy industry, which will diminish if eating habits change as they need to.
A good bioenergy crop is something that grows fast, does not need a lot of water or fertiliser, and is not much use for anything else
Professor John Shepherd, emeritus professor in earth system science at the University of Southampton, said the report highlights that “a good bioenergy crop is something that grows fast, does not need a lot of water or fertiliser, and is not much use for anything else”. He adds: “Bioenergy/BECCS [bioenergy with carbon capture and storage] crops should only be grown on land that has already been deforested and is marginal for other uses: not on agricultural soils and certainly not on land that is deforested for the purpose.”
Investors and airlines will want to know that fuels described as sustainable are approved by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB), an international collaboration of 60 businesses, NGOs, academics, government and UN organisations that is driving best practice for sustainable biomaterial production through certification, innovation and partnerships.
For Burton of LanzaTech, it is a chicken and egg challenge. “If you can’t sell the product, why would investors build the plant? And if you don’t have an off-take you can’t get investment,” says Burton.
And for many airlines, there’s no incentive to invest in fuels that can cost two to three times the price of kerosene.
“From a global perspective, the lack of sufficient policy incentives for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is constraining [its] affordability, and availability as a result,” says Aaron Robinson, United Airlines senior manager for environmental strategy and sustainability. United has been buying biofuels since 2016 from what is now World Energy, a US advanced biofuels company, and is awaiting an almost seven-fold expansion of the company’s California facility, due to be complete in 2021.
Robinson noted that while some regions, like California, Netherlands and the UK, did have good policy frameworks, these aren’t enough to fully close the price gap for all producers. “This price premium exists in large part because producers can opt to produce SAF or biodiesel; today they can earn more by producing biodiesel [due to lower cost of production plus higher revenues] unless airlines are willing to pay significantly more to compensate [them].”
For us it’s make or break – we can only be in the UK if we fit within the policy
In the Netherlands, SkyNRG and KLM are working to persuade corporates to pay the difference in price between the two fuels for the flights they make, arguing that this will lower their own carbon footprint, and help scale up biofuel production.
Stable and long-term policy is essential if the industry is to grow. Last month, Norway became the first country in the world to mandate that 0.5% sustainable fuel be blended with kerosene from 2020. The aim is to grow the blend to 30% by 2030. Only fuels from waste and residue will qualify, and these cannot be based on palm oil.
In Europe, just getting into the market has been difficult, according to Burton. LanzaTech announced it would build a plant in Belgium a year before it announced one in China. The Chinese plant is operating; the one in Belgium, at ArcelorMittal’s steel plant, is still being built. LanzaTech, she said, couldn’t access loan guarantees because they are tied to policy framework.
Europe’s updated Renewable Energy Directive (RED II), which moves the industry away from food-based fuels, may now allow it to enter the EU market, although some technical hurdles remain.
In the UK, LanzaTech’s fuel doesn’t qualify for subsidy under the government’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), but Burton says there is the potential for development fuel credits, which could help bridge the price gap. Discussions are ongoing with the Department for Transport but “for us it’s make or break – we can only be in the UK if we fit within the policy,” she says. LanzaTech is, however, a finalist in the UK government’s Future Fuels for Flight and Freight competition, with a share of £20m capital funding available to the winners. A decision is expected later this year.
The UK picture is more optimistic for Velocys. It makes jet fuel from commercial and municipal solid waste and for the first time qualifies within the RTFO. It’s awaiting planning permission to build on Humberside, with the backing of British Airways and Shell.
There’s not really a silver bullet; no one technology that will dominate the others. In five to 10 years, we’ll have different technologies sitting alongside each other
SkyNRG is building its first plant at Delfzijl on the Dutch coast. Its partner KLM has committed to take 75m litres a year for 10 years from its planned 100m litre output, covering 2% of the airline’s global carbon footprint. Running on green hydrogen, SkyNRG claims its fuel will mean an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Many so-called advanced aviation fuels are made from waste. SkyNRG uses waste fats, while Velocys turns municipal solid waste into aviation fuel. But as campaign group Transport & Environment points out, the supply of waste is limited because it’s incidental to other processes.
That’s why SkyNRG is trying to diversify – exploring options from forestry residue to carbon dioxide.
“There’s not really a silver bullet; no one technology that will dominate the others. In five to 10 years, we’ll have different technologies sitting alongside each other. That will be the answer to feedstock supply,” says Misha Valk, its head of future fuels.
Transport & Environment expects that in 2050, availability of sustainable fuels for the aviation sector will total 7.5bn litres, meeting just 11.4% of European aviation fuel demand, and less if aircraft efficiency and carbon pricing measures are not realised. But, says aviation manager Andrew Murphy, a sizeable level of investment is needed.
Today’s sustainable aviation fuels claim up to 85% reduction in carbon emissions over the lifecycle of their product (taking into account production, energy requirements and chemical inputs).
Getting to 100% could be achieved by using a so-called “electrofuel”.
There’s so much more interest from airlines, the public, large industrial players. The question is: is it going fast enough?
To make electrofuels, green hydrogen (which is produced by electrolysis and using renewable energy) is combined with carbon dioxide to make a drop-in fuel. Carbon dioxide directly captured from the air would lock it in a use/reuse cycle, instead of adding to atmospheric emissions.
In its bid to diversify, SkyNRG is working toward a pilot plant at Rotterdam airport that will make 100 litres of fuel a day using green hydrogen and Climeworks’ direct air capture technology. Valk describes it as a “very interesting route – although not without its challenges.”
The development of electrofuels would also address the problem of using biomass – even residues – for biofuels when land resources are even more stretched, as they will be in future because of climate change.
Valk is optimistic. “I’ve been involved [in this industry] for six or seven years – the momentum is really encouraging to see. It’s a lot different from what it was even three years ago. There’s so much more interest from airlines, the public, large industrial players. The question is: is it going fast enough? The amount of fuel needed to meet targets is quite daunting.”
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
This article is part of the in-depth Sustainable Transport briefing. See also:
Flight shame movement and offsetting no match for rising passenger numbers
High hopes for hydrogen to get sustainable transport on track
Two and three wheels good as India aims for electric mobility
How digital is easing the pain of public transport in Africa
SkyNRG LanzaTech biofuels IEA RSB KLM Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials