Sustainable aviation fuel could bring India’s industry to net-zero
July 6, 2022
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  • The dangers associated with extreme climate events have been assessed time and again at global forums leaving no doubt that it’s time for governments and businesses to act. The burden for action on the largest greenhouse gas (GHG) producers is not lost on India, which is why at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26), it promised to get 50% of its energy from renewable resources by 2030. 

    Progressive reforms and policies in the last decade have demonstrated that India cares about the climate and building the infrastructure required for a resilient future. However, transitioning to a low carbon economy needs comprehensive strategies for the sectors most responsible for GHGs and those hardest to decarbonize, such as its thriving aviation sector, which is expecting double-digit growth. 

    Clean air 

    That’s why in the last quarter of 2021, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Before that, the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, binding the sector to carbon-neutral growth (in line with a 2019 baseline), beginning no later than 2027. 

    The country, therefore, needs a robust action plan to achieve this target, deployable today. The good news is it can look to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), an increasingly available and proven solution to reduce aviation’s carbon footprint. 

    SAF can deliver GHG reductions between 65 and 100% relative to fossil jet fuel. As “drop in” fuels, SAFs that are qualified under ASTM International Standard D7566 meet the specifications of aircraft and engine manufacturers, eliminating any additional equipment or infrastructure investments for their use on commercial flights. Adopting SAF dovetails with India’s energy security objectives, solidifies its sovereign climate commitments, and provides opportunities for rural communities to flourish. 

    Enabling SAFs 

    Aircrafts require energy-dense liquid fuels – currently fossil jet fuel. Like fossil jet, SAF contains carbon but rather than petroleum, the carbon in SAF can come from waste streams or sustainably grown crops, thereby leaving fossil carbon in the ground. 

    There are now seven pathways defined in ASTM International D7566 that are qualified for commercial use, including alcohol-to-jet (ATJ), which can use ethanol as feedstock. Feedstock costs make up around 70-80% of the production cost of SAF, so having low-cost, available and sustainable feedstock is critical. 

    Ethanol as a SAF feedstock is a suitable option for India, backed by its agile, experienced and integrated ethanol value chains, given that India’s energy sector is transitioning to greener technologies. 

    Meeting India’s SAF goals 

    ATJ converts ethanol from any sustainably sourced feedstock e.g. gasifier municipal solid waste, landfill gas, crop and forestry residues, into a stable Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (SPK), resulting in ATJ SPKs that exhibit broad environmental benefits. The resulting SAFs produce 95% less soot, fewer contrails, and a lower CO2 footprint. (Figure 1). 

    What’s more, ATJ is energy and carbon-efficient (>95%). Some ATJ produces SAFs and renewable diesel with very high yields and selectivity to either jet fuel or diesel. Up to 90% jet selectivity or up to 75% diesel selectivity can be accomplished with the same technology, adapting to changing market conditions. The process uses established technology in refining and petrochemicals which also makes it well-positioned for fast adoption. The first 40 million litres per year ATJ facility will be online in 2023, with more than 100 million litres per year units in development worldwide. Some of these first plants will be built in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe. 

    ATJ can use locally sourced sustainable feedstocks and create new clean energy jobs. Today, commercially available gas fermentation recycles CO and CO2 from smokestacks to sustainable ethanol. This essentially means that India can make commercial quantities of SAF without impacting the food chain, land, or water resources (Figure 2). When using advanced ethanol as a feedstock, investment in rural areas and job creation will be an added benefit, as one bio-refinery can contribute or create around 1,200 jobs. 

    Fit for purpose 

    In India, carbon in agricultural residues, solid waste and industrial off-gases can provide more than 30 billion litres per year of sustainable ethanol. Harnessing just 5% of this potential with the ATJ pathway can meet India’s 10% SAF blending target and produce renewable diesel fuel. 

    Biofuels are part of India’s energy security and the Roadmap for Ethanol Blending 2025 in gasoline is a laudable step. Creating a thriving, sustainable aviation sector using domestic wastes and residues can have a similar path and support home-grown talent, employment and decarbonization. 

    In its 2050 Net Zero Carbon plan, IATA projects that 65% of the necessary GHG reductions in 2050 will come from using SAF and 13% from new technology (including electrification or hydrogen). 

    India’s Roadmap of Ethanol Blending 2025 expects 13,500 million litres of ethanol supply by 2025-26, more than double from current 2021 levels, to achieve 20% blending. This ethanol supply can grow significantly with policies aimed at harnessing waste resources. LanzaJet™ ATJ-based SAF can provide new value for ethanol for cars, trucks and jets. A waste-based ethanol to SAF economy in India, enabled by ATJ, also empowers circularity, as shown in Figure 2. 

    For India to be a leader in sustainable aviation, the country needs stable, technology-neutral policies that incentivize innovation, assure long-term offtake and advocate GHG intensity-based price support for aviation fuels. 

    SAF needs investment to bring down production costs, similar to how the petroleum industry was able to reduce costs. However, the latter had a century to do so and amid the current climate emergency, that’s time we no longer have.