May 5, 2021
The U.S. has the potential to replace almost all domestic demand for Jet-A fuel with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), although this would require a significant investment in infrastructure, the development of new sources of raw material, and of course, increased availability, according to research conducted by the Department of Energy (DOE) and detailed in a recent agency webinar.
Annual U.S. production of jet fuel from renewable resources currently reaches less than 10 million gallons per year, a negligible amount compared to the 26 billion gallons consumed by the country’s aviation sector, DOE scientists noted during a May 4 webinar hosted by the agency’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). However, research conducted by NREL shows that “by 2030 there is an energy potential equivalent of the fossil jet fuel demand.”
“The Department of Energy has conducted a significant analysis of potential carbon sources that could be used to produce SAF,” said NREL Senior Research Engineer Derek Vardon. According to Vardon, agricultural residues and other sources could generate more than 20 billion gallons of SAF each year – even with a third of this biomass allocated to gasoline and diesel alternatives – while a further 10 billion gallons of SAF could come from waste carbon sources, such as animal manure, wastewater sludges, food waste, municipal solid waste and industrial waste gas.
Vardon noted that these fuel sources would require substantial investment to move them from proof-of-concept to commercial-scale production, but, he added, “with the caveat that all of these are feedstock and pathway-dependent, and estimates will vary, at least it does provide a rough estimate of the potential energy availability within the U.S. for biofuel production that is commensurate with jet fuel consumption.”
The DOE scientist also pointed to significant growth in current SAF production, fueled in part by California’s low carbon standards, which should increase annual stocks to 4 billion gallons within the next two or three years.
Vardon also pointed to the additional benefits of SAF production beyond its ability to substantially reduce aviation’s carbon emissions. “Certainly, from a broader standpoint, the production of SAF provides critical links to both agriculture, food security and waste management practices, so there are opportunities for cross-sector benefits at the intersection of energy and environment,” he noted.
The DOE also believes the U.S.’s current aviation infrastructure could accommodate the widespread use of SAF if fuel terminals are chosen to blend the renewable fuel with Jet-A, said NREL senior engineer Kristi Moriarty. Noting that current regulations do not allow SAF to be transported in pipelines, and that SAF will be produced in standalone plants, Moriarty explained that NREL has researched fuel terminals, airports, refineries, airports and greenfield and brownfield locations as potential sites to blend SAF with fossil-based jet fuel.
“Terminals make the most sense because they already have existing infrastructure that is familiar with blending fuel and the fuel quality standards dictate that [blending] should be done upstream of the airport,” said Moriarty. Adding SAF blending to a fuel terminal operation also would not require any changes to a facility’s Environmental Protection Agency operating permit, she added.
NBAA is part of a coalition of business aviation organizations dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft and promoting the use of SAF. Learn more about the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative.