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"Right” policies needed to accelerate commercialization of SAF technologies – IEA Bioenergy report

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) will have to play a major role if the aviation sector is to significantly reduce its carbon footprint. Although synthetic hydrogen-based jet fuels will also play an important role in the future, in the short-to-mid term, biojet fuels will predominate. However, to date, commercialization has been slow and current policies have proved inadequate to accelerate commercialization and widespread deployment of the various technologies, a new IEA Bioenergy report finds.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) will have to play a major role if the aviation sector is to significantly reduce its carbon footprint. Although synthetic hydrogen-based jet fuels will also play an important role in the future, in the short-to-mid term, biojet fuels will predominate. However, to date, commercialization has been slow and current policies have proved inadequate to accelerate commercialization and widespread deployment of the various technologies, a new IEA Bioenergy report finds.

IEA Bioenergy is a Technology Collaboration Programme (TCP) established in 1978 by the International Energy Agency (IEA) with the aim of improving cooperation and information exchange between countries that have national programmes in bioenergy research, development and deployment. TCPs are independent bodies operating in a framework provided by the IEA.

The report “Progress in Commercialization of Biojet /Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF): Technologies, potential and challenges” was prepared by members of IEA Bioenergy Task 39, which focuses on conventional and advanced transport biofuels from biomass and other renewable feedstocks. The report provides an extensive analysis of the current and potential technologies for the production of biomass-based sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

As covered in the report, SAF will have to play a major role if the aviation sector is to significantly reduce its carbon footprint. However, to date, commercialization has been slow and current policies have proved inadequate to accelerate commercialization and widespread deployment of the various technologies described in the report.

As described in IEA’s recent publication “Net-Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector, although synthetic hydrogen-based jet fuels will also play an important role in the future, in the short-to-mid term, biojet fuels will predominate. Commercial battery-electric and hydrogen aircraft are expected to play a small role in the 2050 timeframe.

HEFA pathway fully commercialized

Annual volumes of biojet fuel have increased in recent years, from less than 10 million litres in 2018 to likely more than 1 billion litres by 2023, and potentially ~8 billion litres by 2030, with the vast majority of this volume derived from lipids/oleochemicals via the hydrotreated esters and fatty acids (HEFA) pathway.

As described in the IEA Bioenergy Task 39 report, the upgrading of fats, oils, and greases (FOGs) to HEFA is fully commercialized and biojet production is relatively simple compared to other pathways. Currently, these facilities are primarily used to make renewable diesel driven by incentivizing policies for road transport.

However, the report finds that about 15 percent of this renewable diesel could be separated and used as biojet/SAF, provided some additional infrastructure is established at the refinery.

The report summarizes the various technologies that are currently being pursued to produce biojet/SAF from alternative feedstocks, with several commercial-scale facilities coming online over the next few years. The various technologies include gasification and Fischer-Tropsch (FT) to jet, alcohol-to-jet (ATJ), and catalytic hydrothermolysis jet (CHJ).

Several of these pathways and fuels have already received certification, under ASTM, to be used in commercial aviation. Although other technologies, such as pyrolysis and hydrothermal liquefaction are under development, they are not yet ASTM certified.

Policies needed to bridge the price gap

As the deployment of HEFA is constrained by the limited availability of fats and oils, most of the technologies/pathways to biojet/SAF will need to be pursued to deliver the significant fuel volumes required to decarbonize aviation.

As highlighted in the report, some of the biojet/SAF processes have encountered high capital and feedstock costs while some of the other approaches are dealing with technology challenges.

The report recognizes that as biojet/SAF fuel prices are likely to remain significantly higher than conventional jet fuel, the “right” policies will be needed to bridge the price gap and incentivize the production and use of biojet fuels and other sustainable aviation fuels.

Although ongoing improvements and optimization of the various processes will continue to reduce the cost of biojet/SAF production and use, meeting the sector’s decarbonization targets will be challenging and requires a strong commitment of the aviation sector.

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