Aviation's Second Act A sustainable future

Turning back the hands of time on the aviation sector without breaking the laws of physics; how we can use the second chance to become more sustainable.

Fossil fuels, as the name alludes, are the result of millions of years worth of geological processes including catagenesis in which Kerogens are transformed into hydrocarbon products. Fossil fuels are classed as non renewable given the 260 million+ years required to make them from organic matter.

So why does it matter? Well, we are all consumers of the global aviation industry, not just through the personal or business flights we take, but for the goods we buy such as summer fruits in winter, flowers, mail, and even technology. We are utterly addicted to and dependent on aviation in our everyday lives. Aviation is of critical importance to each of us, to discrete regions, all economies, and global society as a whole – flying offers unparalleled social utility. The world is dependent on aviation.

The problem is that the aviation sector is surprisingly energy intensive – consuming 400 billion litres of jet fuel globally per year – the high demand is in part responsible for a significant challenge to decarbonise it. Other factors contributing to the challenge in decarbonising the sector is the sheer scale of the aviation system; shifting to other energy sources would undermine the interoperability of being able to fly on a plane from any airport in the world, to any other airport in the world. Systems of this scale suffer from a lot of inertia – plus there are the financial, time, and embodied carbon costs of system change to consider.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is widely seen as the very best chance the aviation sector has and this is due to the premise behind the fuel; it is made from a renewable process so that the carbon dioxide aircraft emit when they fly, has come from renewable sources – not fossil fuels as it has historically been. It is worth noting that aircraft rolling off production lines today (designed for use with jet fuel) will still be flying in 30 years time – which is when the sector aims to be completely net zero.

The challenges for the sector is that there is nowhere near enough SAF, and there won’t be for at least 3 decades. Countries can’t just legislate for a requirement if the supply cannot meet demand. This means that the only way to get ahead of the problem is commitment to long-term sustainability goals; specifically in the aviation sector this is done incrementally with long lead times to allow supply to catch up with this huge demand.

Most countries are committing to 10% SAF use by 2030, which based on today’s consumption would equate to 40bn litres, but in 2023 only 600m litres of SAF was produced globally. The supply of SAF will be playing catch up to the demand for an uncomfortably long time in this growing sector.

SAF Production

The production of SAF can be split into two camps; biofuels with a carbon source from a biological process, and synthetics with a carbon source from a synthetic process. BioSAF is the most common form of SAF so far, though with a number of limitations, the primary concern for the sector is that bioSAF is not scalable – eventually its supply will be limited and yet the demand will continue to rise sharply as those sustainability targets become increasingly more important.

This is where you might expect the fairytale answer of synthetic fuels coming to the rescue of the sector; that is certainly what the sector is betting on, but synthetics also come with limitations – not scalability, but the cost of production. Synthetic SAF, by definition of its production, uses synthetic processes to replicate what has taken nature 260 million years to do – the major drawback is the energy consumption to speed up the process into a few hours, and this high energy consumption attracts costs.

CirculAIRity’s Solution

The CirculAIRity solution is very much focused on the scale required by the sector and the need to start near-term action in order to support a long-term demand for the sector. This is also based on synthetic SAF being a highly replicable process so it is important to deploy a number of production plants in a short period of time, and fine tune each of them to maximise SAF production rates.

The economy of scale certainly lends itself to reducing the cost per litre of production, so do the other competitive advantages we have over other producers. However we have a Venn diagram of different priorities and the overlap being our focus; the SAF has to be competitively priced, it needs to be safe as a critical part of the aviation system, and it needs to be sustainable – given that this is the reason for change in the first place.

If the synthetic SAF sector gets these right, synthetic SAF production also provides equity of energy transition as it will become a strategic energy source independent of international politics, supply chain constraints, economic pressures and of course fossil fuel supply. Synthetic SAF becomes a strategic advantage to the user, and yet it will not become prevalent until its price point is acceptable to the sector.

SAF production challenges

There are of course challenges that synthetic SAF production needs to overcome; such as ensuring a commercially viable solution, raising the investment capital (higher than bioSAF solutions), sourcing the production equipment at a suitable scale, and obtaining the renewable primary power source for each plant. It is worth noting that none of these challenges are either insignificant nor impossible. All technologies already exist and can scale.

A second chance for the aviation sector

If we were to circle back to the introduction of this blog post, synthetic SAF turns back the hands of time whilst preserving the laws of physics. Synthetic SAF production not only speeds up fuel production by at least 260 million years, but it also gives the aviation sector a second chance – a bit like respawning in a video game – the health of the planet and the sector’s chances of decarbonising now sitting in the balance.

This second chance is arguably the opportunity to go back in time, redefine the aviation sector, and reset its climate changing footprint. It gives the aviation sector, on which the whole world is utterly dependent, a meaningful opportunity to change for the better. To stop playing lip-service to sustainability programmes, and to enable guilt-free flight.

About the author

Alex Chikhani

CEO, CirculAIRity

Alex has been immersed in the start-up/scale-up community and has significant experience in a range of sectors and has worked in a wide range of capacities. Alex sits on the Jet Zero Council’s SAF Technology Delivery Group, and on the MOD’s Aviation Fuel Committee. He is a Chartered Fellow of the CMI and is on the IoD’s Chartered Director programme.
He is currently a NED to two other startups. He is trustee of two charities, a volunteer consultant for The Cranfield Trust, and is the Diversity Ambassador for the IoD South West.

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