Have SAF, Will Fly: USDA Meets GE Aviation on Sustainable Aviation Fuel to Reduce CO2 Emissions


After leading Secretary Tom Vilsack on a tour of the engine development assembly plant at GE Aviation headquarters in Evendale, Ohio in early December, Chief Engineer Chris Lorence asked reporters a rhetorical question gathered for a press conference: “What does the Department of Agriculture have to do with aviation?”

A lot, it turns out.

Secretary Vilsack was visiting GE Aviation headquarters to promote, as he put it, a “partnership that understands and appreciates the challenges the aviation industry faces in complying with climate change regulations and requirements,” in order to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and [enact] his vision of a zero net aviation industry. And sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the key to realizing that vision.

Sustainable aviation fuel is a synthetic fuel that can be made from 60 different raw materials – including vegetable oils, algae, fats, fats, waste streams, alcohols, sugars, captured CO2 and other alternative sources and processes of raw materials. When burned in a jet engine, it delivers the same power as conventional petroleum-based jet fuel with a significantly smaller carbon footprint.

How does SAF achieve this? “This is where agriculture comes in,” Lorence said. Plants grown for agricultural purposes remove carbon dioxide from the earth’s atmosphere as they grow, just like trees and wild plants. But at the end of the growing season, the CO2 these stored plants are released as they decompose. “If we interrupt this process and take advantage of these feedstocks and residues, we can convert them from waste or targeted crops into aviation fuel,” he said. “And that aviation fuel, with the right efficiency and the right scale, can be made efficient enough that the carbon emitted by the aircraft is no more than what the plants have taken from the air to begin with.” This is what Lorence calls a “virtuous circle”.

The Ministry of Energy estimates that the United States alone has the resources to produce 50 to 60 billion gallons of FAS per year. For context, commercial airlines will use around 57 billion gallons of fuel globally by the end of 2021, up from a peak of 95 billion gallons in 2019, according to Statistical. By switching from petroleum to FAS – when you take into account the entire fuel life cycle – the aviation industry could reduce its carbon contribution from fuel by up to 80%, according to industry associations Air Transport Action Group and International Air Transport Association.

This was the idea behind the USDA, DOE and the Department of Transportation which met in September to announce the Big challenge of sustainable aviation fuel, which aims to work with stakeholders “to reduce costs, improve sustainability and increase the production and use of sustainable aviation fuels that achieve at least a 50% reduction in cycle GHGs. life [greenhouse gas emissions] compared to conventional fuel. As Secretary Vilsack noted, the goal of the challenge is for the United States to produce 3 billion gallons of FAS by 2030 and 35 billion gallons by 2050. To kickstart development and help the industry to achieve this goal, the DOE provides $ 4 billion in grants and loans, and the Biden administration included a tax credit in the Build Back Better bill currently being debated in Congress.

“Sustainable aviation fuel has been more expensive to produce than traditional jet fuel,” said Vilsack. “We need to reduce this cost difference.” To do this, USDA will need to determine what is the best feedstock and build an extensive and efficient supply chain to get it to producers – essentially a “farm to fuel” pipeline. USDA already has four research centers experimenting with different raw materials for FAS. “It is not enough to produce the raw materials”, he added, “but the way in which they are produced must also be sustainable”.

For GE, which has actively researched SAF for more than a decade, reducing CO emissions2 flight emissions is paramount. In fact, GE Aviation’s SAF tests include several industry-first flight tests powered by GE and CFM International engines: the first SAF commercial demonstration flight (2008), the first SAF transatlantic flight of a large commercial aircraft (2011), the first 100% SAF military jet (2016) and, earlier this year, the first use of power-to-liquid (PtL), in which renewable electricity is used to split the water to hydrogen and oxygen, and the resulting H2 is used with captured CO2 to synthesize liquid hydrocarbons. (CFM International is a 50-50 joint company between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines.)

Recently, they added another to the list: in early December, a United Airlines-operated Boeing 737-8 flew from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, the first commercial flight with passengers on board to use 100% SAF drop-in for one of the aircraft’s two LEAP-1B engines. The ready-to-use SAF is interchangeable with conventional Jet A and Jet A-1 fuels and does not require any modification to the engines or airframes. “If you ask the pilots, they can’t tell the difference,” Lorence said.

GE has researched the use of SAF with a number of customers. Recent flights operated by Etihad Airways and British Airways used a fuel mixture containing SAF, and GE Aviation is also work with Emirates on the project to test 100% SAF in 2022.

“If you look at the investment we’ve made and the progress we’ve made as an industry, the technical challenges can be overcome,” Lorence said. When it comes to finding the best formula for SAF and increasing production, the challenge “is only about markets, availability and prices”.

“We know we have to keep looking for other ways for farmers to profit from what they do on the land,” Secretary Vilsack said. “And one way to do that is to convert agricultural products – agricultural waste – into this very valuable product that will allow our planes to fly in a more environmentally friendly manner. It’s an exciting opportunity. We are partners. in partnership with the aerospace industry and GE, to try to develop that. ”


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