Analysing the push for sustainable jet fuel
Explainer: Some companies are testing production feasibility, while airlines are eager to cut their carbon footprint
published : 3 May 2023 at 06:22
newspaper section: Business
Biodiesel, a mix of diesel and palm oil-derived methyl ester used by cars with internal combustion engines, as well as used cooking oil that previously was deemed useless are now vying to change the aviation industry. The two oils can be processed to make sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, a biofuel for aircraft.
Many companies are eager to produce SAF as airline operators are increasingly aware of the new fuel's potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The Bangkok Post looks into the trend aiming to give the aviation industry an eco-friendly outlook.
What is sustainable aviation fuel?
SAF is a biofuel used to power aircraft. Its properties are similar to those of conventional jet fuel, but it has a smaller carbon footprint.
Depending on the feedstock and technologies used in the production of the fuel, SAF can reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically.
SAF, which can be made from used cooking oil and agricultural waste, produces up to 80% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional jet fuel, according to media reports citing some estimates.
Similar to efforts to make electric planes, SAF shares the same environmental goal. Yet while the latter faces problems such as battery weight, SAF, which can be mixed with conventional jet fuel, seems to be a more solid option to fight global warming, according to the International Energy Agency.
Energy Absolute, a renewable energy and electric vehicle developer, set aside 2 billion baht to increase production of SAF to 130 tonnes a day, up from 65 tonnes. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
Why are more companies interested in making SAF?
Most interested companies want to produce SAF because of an environmental motive, but SAF can also serve as a promising new source of revenue.
SET-listed Energy Absolute (EA), a renewable energy and electric vehicle (EV) developer and operator, announced it would spend 2 billion baht increasing production of SAF to 130 tonnes a day, up from 65 tonnes a day.
The outlay is part of a 10-billion-baht investment budget allocated this year to grow its businesses, including producing more EVs and batteries as well as expanding solar power capacity.
The company uses biodiesel as a key raw material to produce SAF.
EA's production capacity of methyl ester, which is blended with diesel to make biodiesel, tallied 800,000 litres per day last year.
Vasu Klomkliang, senior vice-president for strategy development and investment planning at EA, said using biofuel in jet fuel would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions as the transport sector is among the world's top three emitters of the gases.
The development of biofuel for aircraft is part of the company's plans to add value to commodity-grade biodiesel, which EA has produced for almost two decades.
Other companies are also keen on venturing into the SAF business.
Global Green Chemicals Plc (GGC), the biochemical arm of PTT Global Chemical, said earlier this year the company is conducting a feasibility study on the production of SAF.
SET-listed Bangkok Aviation Fuel Services teamed up with sugar miller Mitr Phol Co to study whether a plan to produce SAF is feasible.
Kridsada Prasertsuka, managing director of GGC, said SAF, which can be made from ethanol, will become mandatory for international flights in developed countries to support attempts to curb carbon dioxide emissions.
According to media reports, the European Commission proposed that by 2025 at least 2% of jet fuel in use should come from sustainable sources. By 2050, that figure would increase to more than 60%.
SET-listed energy conglomerate Bangchak Corporation announced last year a plan to make SAF from used cooking oil via a joint venture with a budget of 200 million baht in a move to cut carbon dioxide emissions.
The SAF production facility is scheduled to open in the fourth quarter of 2024, according to BBGI Plc, Bangchak's biotechnology arm.
Bangchak, BBGI and Thanachok Oil Light Co, which runs an integrated vegetable oil business, signed a memorandum of understanding on SAF production, with a targeted capacity of 1 million litres a day. The production is under a new company named BSGF Co.
Annual consumption of vegetable oil in Thailand is around 900,000 litres, with demand constantly growing. This gives BSGF an opportunity to add value to used cooking oil and cater to SAF demand, which is expected to grow rapidly.
THAI uses SAF to refuel at Suvarnabhumi airport. IATA expects SAF to account for 65% of carbon mitigation, or about 1.16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, by the end of 2050. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
How popular is SAF?
SAF is being promoted by the aviation industry, but some challenges must be sorted to make the new fuel more popular.
Many Asia-Pacific carriers signed offtake contracts with producers to deliver SAF, including Korean Air, ANA, Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Cebu Pacific, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
In 2021, the airline members of IATA committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
IATA expects SAF to account for 65% of the carbon mitigation, or about 1.16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, by the end of 2050.
In Thailand, the use of biofuel for jets started with a trial flight operated by Thai Airways International from Don Mueang airport to Suvarnabhumi airport about a decade ago.
With the government's push for more uses of renewable energy and EVs, consumption of fossil fuels in the country is expected to peak in 2030, then decrease significantly, Weerin Wangjiraniran, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University's Energy Research Institute (ERI) said at a previous seminar.
Authorities set a goal to have renewable energy make up 50% of all fuels used for power generation by 2037.
The National EV Policy Committee announced in 2021 it wants EVs to constitute 50% of locally made vehicles by 2030, part of an ambitious plan to make Thailand a regional EV hub.
Citing the ERI's latest research, Mr Weerin said daily use of gasoline will decrease to 4 million litres, down from 24 million litres, by 2050. Diesel consumption is expected to fall to 9 million litres a day, down from 59 million litres a day, by 2050.
He said this would lead to a disruption in the oil refinery business, which will also be affected by more use of SAF.
The shift to SAF is the result of the International Civil Aviation Organization's push to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
However, sustainable fuel can be up to three times as expensive as fossil fuel, according to media reports. Even at United Airlines, which supports SAF, sustainable fuel made up less than 1% of its total fuel consumption in 2021.
In the view of the Rhodium Group, an energy sector consulting group, it will not be easy to make SAF a mainstream fuel because scaling up its production and usage faces some technological and economic obstacles.
Yet even a small volume of SAF being utilised by airlines will be a good starting point for them to understand the benefits of this new type of fuel, according to IATA.
- jet fuel