SAF are a proven drop-in technology that have the potential to cut carbon emissions in the range of 70% to 100%. To date, they have powered some 450,000 flights.
“Even if we have hydrogen and electric propulsion systems for short haul commercial flights by 2035, the majority of emissions come from long-haul widebody flights,” says Hemant Mistry, IATA’s Director of Energy Transition. “We need SAF to be widely available at a competitive price.”
The current situation
There is a long way to go, however. Approximately 0.1% of fuel uptake is SAF although this figure has been artificially inflated because of the lower total fuel uptake in the past two years. There is better clarity on SAF availability in 2025.
“If you take a flight in 2025, there are decent odds that some SAF will be in the tank,” says Mistry. “There will have been more than one million flights and production will have swollen some 50 times from 2021 volumes. About 50 airports will have some SAF in the system and the next wave of production facilities will have been announced focusing on industrial waste gases, waste agricultural, and forestry material, and aviation will be regularly turning household rubbish into jet fuel.”
That extra capacity will translate to some 5 billion liters of SAF being available in 2025. Most will be HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids)-based—meaning such feedstocks as vegetable oils and used cooking oils.
HEFA is a ready-to-go solution with established markets and logistics. Feedstock is available and refineries can be easily adapted to be HEFA compatible. The issue will remain the price. Used cooking oil, for example, is trading above the price of jet fuel.
“But you have to factor in not only the cost of fossil kerosene but also the cost of burning it,” says Mistry. “Emitting carbon will get more expensive and airlines should build that into any assumptions about the SAF price.”
In any case, trying to predict a SAF price is notoriously difficult. There are more than 50 different SAF feedstock and technology combinations that can be applied in the seven technical pathways that have been certified. And there are numerous stakeholders in SAF deployment too, from airlines buyers to feedstock suppliers, technology companies, SAF producers, logistics firms, financial institutions, and governments. For each of these, geography, cost of labor, and regulatory frameworks must also be factored into the equation.
Mistry accepts that SAF may not achieve price parity in the near future, but he does believe that the price will become competitive.
“There is more risk in doing nothing than in committing to SAF,” he suggests. “Airlines will need to use SAF, and it is better to get experience of it now. It is a drop-in fuel, but airlines might need to know where it is best to use SAF, for example. Some parts of the world will have better availability or attach more importance to their use. SAF will influence strategic decisions.”
Mistry also points out the uncertainty regarding electric or hydrogen options. It isn’t known how much hydrogen will cost, what the maintenance requirements will be or even what the input infrastructure will look like. “There are so many variables with new energy sources that we don’t have clarity on,” says Mistry. “We have SAF. We know they work. The emphasis has to be there.”
Every new SAF pathway will expand airline options. Additional technical pathways are expected in the short term and there is close to $20 billion in forward orders.
Work is also ongoing on power-to-liquid (PtL) or sun-to-liquid (StL) processes, also known as synthetic fuels. These fuels are 100% carbon neutral and should be hitting the market soon. They are produced using green electricity, which is coming down in price rapidly as photovoltaic improvements come online. But they are more complex than HEFA and stakeholders are still improving their understanding of gathering carbon from air or from waste.
Demand will also get a boost from the transition to 100% SAF from the maximum 50-50 blend with fossil jet fuel currently allowed. There are no major technical problems with 100% SAF and it has even been tested on a commercial flight by United Airlines. Numerous other trials have also been positive, and the only caveat is that it needs the latest generation of engines.
Older aircraft and engines need aromatics—chemicals that make the fuel work better—to swell seals and prevent leaks. In any case, by the time SAF are in widespread use these aircraft and engines will be retiring.
Synthetic aromatics are also on the horizon and certification body ASTM is looking at the required standards.
It is clear that SAF activity is accelerating and on track. Usage will be above the 2% target by 2025 driven by significant airline commitments to buy SAF. By 2045, it is estimated that SAF usage will surpass total fuel uptake in 2019.
“The key now is to keep policies harmonized,” adds Mistry. “The United States and others are taking bold steps forward but keeping it orderly will be important.”
Helping matters is the fact that there is a SAF-compatible feedstock option in more than 90% of countries in the world. By combining international technology with local feedstock to produce SAF locally, governments will enjoy a greater degree of energy security, which is in keeping with most government strategies.
IATA estimates that to reach net zero by 2050, the aviation sector will require about 450 billion liters of SAF. Mistry says the association will be working hard to ensure all stakeholders work toward this goal.
“IATA plays a role in bringing organizations together, sometimes doing matchmaking and importantly, upholding the technical and sustainability standards that airline passengers and the wider community expect,” he adds. “Increasingly, IATA has been actively engaging with policy makers to help design policies that support accelerating the global deployment of SAF.”
United Airlines Ventures (UAV) and Oxy Low Carbon Ventures (OLCV) are working with Houston-based biotech firm Cemvita Factory to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) using carbon dioxide (CO2) and synthetic microbes.
If work goes according to plan, UAV and OLCV plan to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. This includes funding such projects as engineering studies and constructing and operating SAF plants.
Cemvita is the third SAF-related technology in which UAV has invested. And it will continue to make strategic investments in SAF producers and revolutionary technologies, including carbon capture, hydrogen-electric engines, electric regional aircraft, and urban air mobility.
United has also
- purchased an equity stake in hydrogen-electric engine developer ZeroAvia.
- flown a passenger aircraft full of passengers using 100% sustainable aviation fuel.
- agreed to purchase some 5 billion gallons of SAF.
- invested in electric aircraft startup Heart Aerospace
- announced an agreement to work with Archer Aviation to accelerate the development and production of an urban mobility solution or air taxi
Swedish airline Braathens Regional Airlines (BRA), turboprop manufacturer ATR and SAF producer Neste are partnering to fly an aircraft on 100% SAF in one engine and 50% SAF in the other. It is anticipated emissions will be reduced 64%.
Per G. Braathen, Chairman of Braathens Regional Airlines said: “It is absolutely vital that aviation goes even further to decarbonise. It is what we want, and what our passengers and the general public expect. However, we must be realistic and accept that it is today impossible to achieve this aim with one concrete action only. This is a process with many steps and, in the short-term, the most efficient way to reduce CO2 emissions is to increase the use of SAF. Partnering with ATR to achieve 100% SAF certification will enable us to reach our goal of 100% SAF in our planes in 2030. This is in line with our strategy to become the world’s first net-zero airline 10 years ahead of any other airline.”
Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Safran and Singapore Airlines signed a Global SAF Declaration that commits them to promote the acceleration of the development, production, and consumption of SAF.
The Global SAF Declaration aims to ensure a steady increase in SAF utilization over the next decade through enhanced collaboration.
Lee Wen Fen, Senior Vice President Corporate Planning, Singapore Airlines, said: “The Global SAF Declaration reaffirms SIA’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. SIA remains firmly committed to our sustainability goals and has been actively advancing the use of SAF in Singapore together with our partners. Beyond SAF, we also use multiple levers to achieve our goals, including achieving higher operational efficiency and investing in new-generation aircraft. We will continue to collaborate with like-minded partners globally to work towards decarbonisation and environmental sustainability in our operations.”
TotalEnergies' Normandy platform has begun production of SAF. Two other company sites are also involved in SAF production and from 2024 TotalEnergies will also produce SAF at its Grandpuits zero-crude platform southeast of Paris. The move is partially a response to French legislation, which calls for aircraft to use at least 1% SAF.
An Airbus A380 has flown using 100% SAF in one Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine. For the flight, 27 tonnes of unblended SAF were provided by TotalEnergies. It was made from HEFA, was free of aromatics and Sulphur, and primarily consisted of used cooking oil and other waste fats. It is the third Airbus aircraft type to fly on 100% SAF following an A350 and an A319neo.
SAF must make up 10% of Japanese airlines’ total fuel uptake by 2030.
To help, the government will set up a public-private committee to encourage domestic production. JGC Holdings and Cosmo Oil have already announced a SAF production facility that is expected to produce up to 30 million liters from 2025. This is enormous step up from trial productions that supplied just 300 liters in 2021.
Honeywell and Oriental Energy Company Ltd. Have announced a SAF production facility in Maoming, Guangdong Province in China. The new facility will produce 1 million tons of SAF annually. China aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060.