Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs)

Detailed overview of innovation with sample startups and prominent university research

What it is

SAFs are biofuels that are specifically designed to meet the stringent requirements of the aviation industry. They offer a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional jet fuels. SAFs can be produced from various feedstocks, including used cooking oil, plant oils, and even captured carbon dioxide.

Impact on climate action

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) within the Biofuels domain revolutionize air travel by offering renewable alternatives to conventional jet fuels. By reducing carbon emissions and mitigating environmental impact, SAFs advance climate action, supporting the aviation industry’s transition towards a more sustainable and eco-friendly mode of transportation.

Underlying
Technology

  • Renewable Feedstocks: SAFs are produced from renewable feedstocks, such as used cooking oil, plant oils, agricultural residues, and even captured carbon dioxide. This reduces reliance on fossil fuels and lowers the carbon footprint of aviation.
  • Conversion Technologies: Different technologies are used to convert renewable feedstocks into SAFs. These technologies include hydroprocessing, Fischer-Tropsch synthesis, and alcohol-to-jet (AtJ) processes.
  • Drop-in Fuels: SAFs are designed to be “drop-in” fuels, meaning they are chemically identical to conventional jet fuel and can be used in existing aircraft and infrastructure without any modifications.

TRL : 6-7

Prominent Innovation themes

  • Advanced Feedstock Production: Innovations in feedstock production, such as the development of high-yielding algae strains and sustainable agricultural practices, are improving the availability and sustainability of SAF feedstocks.
  • Improved Conversion Technologies: Researchers and companies are developing more efficient and cost-effective conversion technologies to produce SAFs from various feedstocks.
  • Carbon Capture and Utilization: Integrating carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies with SAF production facilities can further reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create negative-carbon SAFs.

Sample Global Startups and Companies

  • LanzaJet:
    • Technology Enhancement: LanzaJet specializes in producing sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) from non-recyclable waste-based ethanol using a proprietary alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) process. This process involves converting ethanol into sustainable jet fuel using catalytic processes.
    • Uniqueness of the Startup: LanzaJet’s technology offers a scalable and cost-effective solution for producing SAFs from waste-based ethanol, which can be sourced from various feedstocks, including municipal solid waste, industrial residues, and agricultural waste.
    • End-User Segments Addressing: LanzaJet serves the aviation industry seeking to reduce its carbon footprint and meet sustainability goals. Their SAFs offer a drop-in solution for conventional jet fuels, enabling airlines to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without modifying aircraft or infrastructure.
  • Gevo:
    • Technology Enhancement: Gevo develops bio-based isobutanol and hydrocarbon fuels from renewable feedstocks such as corn, sugarcane, and forestry residues. They utilize fermentation and chemical conversion processes to produce sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) with low carbon intensity.
    • Uniqueness of the Startup: Gevo’s technology allows for the production of SAFs with high energy density and low greenhouse gas emissions, offering a renewable alternative to conventional jet fuels derived from fossil sources.
    • End-User Segments Addressing: Gevo serves the aviation industry seeking to decarbonize flight operations and comply with emissions regulations. Their SAFs enable airlines to reduce their carbon footprint and mitigate environmental impact without compromising performance or safety.
  • Fulcrum BioEnergy:
    • Technology Enhancement: Fulcrum BioEnergy specializes in producing sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) from municipal solid waste using a proprietary thermochemical process called gasification. This process involves converting waste into synthesis gas (syngas), which is then converted into biofuels.
    • Uniqueness of the Startup: Fulcrum’s technology offers a circular solution for waste management and biofuel production, transforming non-recyclable municipal solid waste into drop-in SAFs for aviation use, reducing landfill waste and carbon emissions.
    • End-User Segments Addressing: Fulcrum BioEnergy serves the aviation industry seeking reliable and sustainable sources of SAFs. Their biofuels provide a scalable and environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuels, contributing to the aviation sector’s sustainability goals.

Sample Research At Top-Tier Universities

  • University of California, Berkeley:
    • Research Focus: UC Berkeley is actively involved in pioneering research on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), focusing on the development of advanced biofuel production pathways and technologies that meet aviation industry standards while minimizing environmental impact.
    • Uniqueness: Their research often involves the utilization of renewable feedstocks, such as algae, waste oils, and lignocellulosic biomass, for producing drop-in biofuels with properties similar to conventional jet fuels.
    • End-use Applications: UC Berkeley’s work has applications in aviation, climate change mitigation, and renewable energy. For example, they’re researching catalytic hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL) processes for converting algae biomass into bio-oil and upgrading it into sustainable aviation fuels with reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT):
    • Research Focus: MIT conducts cutting-edge research on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), exploring innovative biochemical, thermochemical, and electrochemical pathways for producing drop-in biofuels compatible with existing aircraft engines and infrastructure.
    • Uniqueness: Their research often involves systems-level analysis, techno-economic assessments, and life cycle assessments to evaluate the environmental, economic, and societal implications of various SAF production routes and feedstock options.
    • End-use Applications: Their work finds applications in the aviation industry, renewable fuels market, and climate change mitigation efforts. For instance, they’re researching electrochemical conversion of CO2 into synthetic hydrocarbon fuels using renewable electricity and developing catalytic processes for upgrading lignocellulosic biomass into aviation biofuels with low lifecycle carbon intensity.
  • Imperial College London:
    • Research Focus: Imperial College London is a leader in research on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), investigating advanced conversion technologies, renewable feedstocks, and supply chain optimization strategies for accelerating the commercialization of SAFs.
    • Uniqueness: Their research often involves interdisciplinary collaborations, integrating expertise in chemical engineering, environmental science, and policy analysis to address technical, economic, and regulatory challenges associated with SAF deployment.
    • End-use Applications: Their work has applications in aviation decarbonization, energy security, and sustainable development. For example, they’re researching thermochemical conversion of waste biomass into synthetic jet fuels and exploring sustainable feedstock sourcing strategies for scaling up SAF production while ensuring social and environmental sustainability.

commercial_img Commercial Implementation

SAFs are already being used in commercial flights, but production volumes are still limited. However, with increasing regulatory support and investment, SAF production is expected to scale up significantly in the coming years.