Earlier this month, a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Washington made a bit of aviation history, making a 600-mile trip that the airline hopes will be the first stop on a journey to a greener future.
Initially, one of the 737 Max 8’s two engines was powered exclusively by fuel made from used cooking oil and waste melted fat from beef, pork and chicken. Refined at a plant in Southern California, the fuel produces about 80% less emissions than conventional jet fuel, according to the carrier. The biofuel had been blended with conventional fuel in the past, but United Airlines said it had never been used on its own in the engine of a commercial flight.
The Chicago carrier made the flight to show the progress it has made towards its goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is a goal shared by the International Air Transport Assn. , the trade group representing the world’s airlines.
But achieving the ambitious goal of completely eliminating aviation emissions – responsible for 3-4% of the world’s carbon emissions – will not be easy. This will require huge government investments in the form of tax breaks or subsidies and revolutionary technological advancements, such as the development of hybrid or all-electric jets, according to aviation experts and academics.
In the meantime, airlines that want to use more sustainable, low-emission aviation fuel will have to pay up to four times as much as conventional fuel, which could mean higher airfares for everyone.
“It’s not clear how we’re going to get there,” said Jan Brueckner, professor and chair of the economics department at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Irvine. “Maybe by 2050 it’s possible if a bunch of things come together.”
Not all airline executives are convinced that aviation emissions can be eliminated by 2050.
“I think we make a lot of promises that we can’t keep,” said Alex Wilcox, managing director and co-founder of JSX, an independent airline in Dallas, during a sustainability roundtable at a recent airline show at Long Plage.
Airlines say the effort – even if the target can’t be met – makes good business sense.
“There are people who want to fly an airline that reflects their beliefs and values,” United spokeswoman Maddie King said. “There are clients who are very interested in making their own lifestyle sustainable. ”
Some may be motivated by the so-called shame of flying, the guilt that environmentally conscious travelers have about the carbon footprint of their air travel. It’s a sentiment that is growing in popularity, in part thanks to the efforts of Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg.
Another motivation for airlines is the fear that governments will start to impose emission reductions through fines or taxes. It has already started in Europe, where the European Union has proposed an environmental plan which, among other changes, would revamp the bloc’s emissions trading program and introduce taxes on maritime and air fuels for the first time. .
A survey by a United Nations initiative of 1,200 business leaders around the world found that 72% of them think sustainability is an immediate priority.
The term “net zero” is somewhat misleading. IATA makes it clear in its literature that the use of sustainable aviation fuel would only reach about 65% of the target, with an additional 13% coming from the use of new technologies to make airplanes lighter, more fuel efficient and more aerodynamic. In recent years, many airlines have added “winglets” – vertical extensions of the wing tips on airplanes – to improve fuel efficiency by about 5%.
Of the remaining emission reductions, the lion’s share, around 19%, is expected to come from so-called ‘carbon offsetting’ or ‘carbon capture’ technology. In other words, airlines should offset some aviation emissions by paying a third party to plant forests or preserve wetlands or by investing in nascent technology that captures carbon by collecting it before it is released. freed from operations such as coal-fired power plants. , chemical plants or biomass power plants and store them underground. United Airlines says it hopes to achieve its goal without compensation.
Scientists and some environmentalists are cautious about the effectiveness of offsets in achieving their goals.
To complete the transition, airlines will eventually have to abandon combustion engines and turn to alternative technologies, such as hybrid or all-electric planes, according to experts. IATA plans to switch to such technology in the 2030s.
Still, experts say batteries need to become considerably lighter and more powerful before they can provide the propulsion of commercial aircraft. In the short term, an electric plane might be feasible for short flights, those under 200 miles, but developing batteries that can power transcontinental or transatlantic flight could take decades, they say.
“The path from where we are now to there requires substantial innovation,” said Gene Gebolys, managing director of World Energy, a Boston-based biofuels energy company.
The biggest challenge right now is to produce enough sustainable, low-emission jet fuel that can be used in existing commercial jets without modifications to power airlines around the world.
Refineries around the world now produce about 26.4 million gallons of sustainable, low-emission aviation fuel per year, according to IATA. This is only a fraction of the 18.3 billion gallons of fuel burned by U.S. carriers alone in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Proposal in President Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan calls for a fuel tax credit that could increase sustainable aviation fuel production to 3 billion gallons per year by 2030 – still a fraction of fuel that airlines expect to need over the next decade.
“There is no doubt that there is a challenge,” Gebolys said. “It’s all a matter of scale.
World Energy’s Paramount facility now has the capacity to refine cooking oil and molten animal fat into 15 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel per year. The fuel was used in United’s demonstration flight on December 1 and is used on JetBlue flights departing from Los Angeles International Airport. The company is now investing $ 1.5 billion to modernize the facility and enable it to produce up to 370 million gallons per year.
“At the point where we are now, it will be an extremely ambitious target to reach net zero by 2050,” Gebolys said. “Do I think it’s possible? Absoutely.”
Neste, a Finnish company that claims to be the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel and jet fuel, produces 34 million gallons per year, and plans to reach 515 million gallons by mid-2023.
“It’s an infant industry,” said Jeremy Baines, president of Neste US. “Oil producers have been working there for 100 years. “
For now, biofuel producers depend on used cooking oil, melted animal fat, jatropha plant, algae and other so-called raw materials, but experts say refineries do not ‘do not have access to enough of these materials to produce the billions of gallons of aviation fuel. necessary to achieve the net-zero objective.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, about 3 billion gallons of used cooking oil are collected each year from hotels and restaurants nationwide, but much of the oil ends up in landfills or landfills. sewers. According to industry experts, it takes about eight gallons of used cooking oil to produce one gallon of durable aviation fuel. This means that even if every drop of cooking oil were collected and turned into jet fuel today, it still wouldn’t be enough to fuel all of today’s flights.
“There is only a limited amount of used cooking oil in the world,” said Joshua S. Heyne, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Dayton.
To motivate private companies to increase the collection of used cooking oil, rendered animal fat and other raw materials, governments would likely need to give tax breaks or subsidies to make it profitable, according to industry experts.
“It’s doable, but you need incentives to be right,” Brueckner said.