Sustainable aviation fuels – is Australia being left behind?

Some solutions in renewable energy are relatively easy. Solar panels on roofs for example, or battery powered cars.

But our obsession with air travel is significantly harder to decarbonise. Batteries are too heavy except on very short flights, and other zero carbon solutions in aviation are few and far between. Without removing air travel altogether, the next best thing is something called ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ or SAFs.

While many other countries are ramping up their SAF production and already mixing it in with traditional fuels, Australia is being left behind.

“It’s a shame if Qantas meets its 10 per cent sustainable aviation fuel target in 2030 by just buying it offshore,” said Qantas CEO Alan Joyce earlier this year.

“That would be terrible outrage in my mind, and it’s a terrible dropping of the ball in Australia.”

What is sustainable aviation fuel?

SAFs are lower carbon fuels. They can be made of either biomass like waste oil or alcohol – called biofuels, or built chemically, brick-by-brick from carbon dioxide and green hydrogen – called e-fuels.

Biofuels particularly are not a zero-carbon alternative, but they are markedly better than traditional fossil fuel-based jet fuel.

These fuels can be used just by themselves – called 100% SAF-powered – and they have very similar chemistry to traditional fossil jet fuel so they’re just as effective.

The problem though is the cost. They’re up to four times as expensive as traditional jet fuel, and around the world there’s just not that much of it on the market – less than 1% of jet fuel available.

“Aviation fuels represent about 7-8% of all fuel consumption I believe, and of course in a country like Australia it’s an even bigger part of our liquid fuel consumption,” Lars Nielsen, a professor at the Australian Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, told Cosmos.

“A very large part of the cost of flying is the aviation fuel. Nobody’s jumping to pay more for flying to Europe, therefore, it’s market demand. Are the customers willing to pay the extra price that would be involved with it?”

Read more: Travelling around the globe might not have to cost the Earth: carbon neutral fuel production

As we decarbonise other areas of emissions – like electricity, transport and agriculture – aviation emissions as a percentage of total emissions are likely to skyrocket. While we could lower our reliance on flying (a small but growing habit), or discover completely zero carbon solutions for aviation, working out how to make SAFs sustainable and cost effective is important.

Nielsen has worked with SAF in the past, as part of a project called the Queensland Sustainable Aviation Fuel Initiative.

The group was trying to work out if three different sources of biofuels – sugar cane crop, algae, and a drought resistant tree called pongamia – could be made cost efficient compared to traditional fossil based jet fuels.

“Whenever the prices of jet fuel go high, people start getting interested,” he says.

“The only thing that could happen at a reasonable speed was sugar to fuel. But even then, we could see the prices were not competitive [even though] it’s technically very feasible.”

International Jet Fuel

Despite these problems, companies have started creating SAFs and selling them to aviation companies around the world.

Heathrow for example is the largest major airport user of SAFs. This is partially due to a government mandate requiring 10% of jet fuel be SAF by 2030, and a priority to have at least 5 commercial-scale SAF plants under construction in the UK by 2025.

This is on top of Heathrow airport putting in place SAF incentives earlier this year.

In the US, the government has launched the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge to reduce the cost, enhance the sustainability, and expand the production and use of SAF.

United Airlines has used over five million gallons at Los Angeles International Airport, while JetBlue has signed a ten-year uptake agreement to receive at least 670 million gallons of blended SAF to its three New York area airports – JFK, La Guardia, and Newark.

But there have already been some kinks in the system, particularly with first generation biofuels.

“What was really quite disastrous is that in 2005 Europe committed to using biodiesel. Of course, biodiesel manufacturers in Europe found out the cheapest oil source we have is palm oil,” Nielson said.  

“It expanded quite significantly the amount of biodiesel incorporated.”

Unfortunately, a report in 2016 found that Europe’s switch might have increased greenhouse gas emissions. They reported that emissions from biodiesel are more than three times higher than those from conventional diesel engines when indirect effects are considered.

The EU has now committed to phasing out these ‘first generation biofuels’ by 2030, but it highlights that not all sustainable fuels are equal.

Australia is being left behind

Meanwhile, in Australia we have barely made it into first-generation biofuels. The Queensland Sustainable Fuel Initiative shut down in the early 2010s, and there hasn’t been much traction since.

This is both in getting the SAF into planes, as well as creating the fuel in Australia. Having a SAF industry in Australia would create jobs, potentially use waste products like used fry oil, as well as lower the emissions getting the fuel shipped halfway across the world.

There have been a few toes dipped into the water in the past few years.

In 2017 Virgin Australia announced a trial to add SAF through Brisbane Airport’s fuel supply system. It finished up in 2018, after being used in 195 flights from Brisbane. However, since the completion of the trial, there has been no other SAF incorporated into Australia’s jet fuel supply.

Despite Virgin committing to net zero emissions by 2050, there’s currently no concrete plans for SAF to be used in their planes. Instead, they are prioritising modernising planes, lowering operational efficiencies, ground emissions, waste management and expanding the carbon offsetting programs.

“Virgin Australia continues to work proactively with government and industry to establish a program for the viable commercial production of sustainable aviation fuel here in Australia,” a Virgin Australia Spokesperson told Cosmos in a statement.

In March this year Qantas announced a Climate Action Plan where they pledged 10% SAF by 2030, and 60% by 2050. They also invested $50 million dollars in domestic production of SAF.

Currently, the only SAF being used in the Qantas fleet is from the Heathrow Airport, but they’ve agreed to purchase SAF for its operations from California from 2025.

In April, the Queensland government announced the first commercial sustainable aviation fuel biorefinery in Australia, which is hoping to provide 350 million litres of sustainable aviation fuel and renewable diesel once it’s up and running.

We might be waiting a while though – construction isn’t set to start until 2023, and the company behind the facility – Oceania Biofuels – has suggested that operations won’t begin until at least 2025.

With the government’s 35% reduction in emissions by 2030, and net zero by 2050, working out how to create and incorporate SAFs to meet demand needs to be a priority.

The previous government released a ‘bioenergy roadmap’ back in November last year, however the report has almost no commitments and limited funding for SAFs.

Currently the Albanese government is still in the planning stages of creating any SAF initiatives.

“The Minister for Transport has already outlined her intention to form a Jet Zero-style council to work across the aviation sector to help co-ordinate ongoing work to drive down aviation emissions,” a spokesperson for the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Catherine King, told Cosmos.

“In addition, our upcoming Aviation White Paper will consider as a priority how to maximise the aviation sector’s contribution to achieving net zero carbon emissions, including through sustainable aviation fuel and emerging technologies.

“The Minister is also establishing a unit in the department to work across government and with industry to drive down domestic transport sector emissions.”

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