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Sustainability Airlines want to make flying more sustainable. How will they do it? Air travel produces millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. New technologies can help airlines reduce their emissions and meet their sustainability goals By Lee Kritsch Boerner September 3, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 32
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), air travel produces about 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions and is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gases. “The lowest-emission flight is one that does not take place at all,” says Nikita Pavlenko, senior fuel researcher at ICCT. This advice is not practical for people who have to travel long distances or for the airline industry. But climate scientists say airlines must reduce their emissions to bring climate change under control.
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Many airline companies have announced programs to try to become more sustainable in the coming years. Delta Air Lines pledged $1 billion to become carbon neutral by 2030. JetBlue promises to get there by 2040 and United Airlines by 2050. Many other global airlines around the world have made similar promises.
But making air travel more sustainable is not easy. It takes a lot of energy to lift people and goods into the air and carry them over long distances. Airlines are trying to reduce their emissions in several ways. Probably the most common is to switch from traditional fossil-derived jet fuels to jet fuels that are made from renewable sources and have lower emissions during production. Airlines are also looking at new materials and coating technologies to make planes lighter, more aerodynamic and more resistant to wear and tear. Meanwhile, some airlines like United think they can achieve carbon neutrality when they restart supersonic flying.
Read on to learn more about the problems companies will face when trying to make their planes more environmentally friendly, as well as the technologies they can use.
Shrinking the carbon footprint of jet fuel Emissions from the burning of jet fuel constitute a large part of the environmental impact of commercial airlines. Airlines are considering reducing this through alternative fuels
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The trash is carried on a conveyor belt to Fulcrum BioEnergy’s Sierra trash-to-fuel facility, ready to be processed into jet fuel. Fulcrum plans to begin producing biofuel in the last quarter of this year at the plant just east of Reno, and the company has plans for eight more plants.
When airline executives think about making air travel more sustainable, the biggest arrow points to the fuel burned to keep planes in the air. “For short-haul flights, there is some encouraging movement toward zero-emission aircraft, such as electric-powered aircraft,” Pavlenko says. “But for everything else, it depends on what fuel you can switch to.”
The goal of using sustainable aviation fuel or SAF is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the lifetime of the fuel, from production to combustion, compared to current petroleum-based jet fuel. The scale of that reduction depends on the process used to make the fuel and the carbon source. And even though some SAFs claim notable emissions reductions, few are carried out on a large scale.
To make Fischer–Tropsch synthetic paraffinic kerosene, industrial chemists oxidize the carbon source into a mixture of synthesis gas, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen, and then run this gas over an iron, cobalt, or ruthenium catalyst to produce hydrocarbons. . They then blend the products with fossil-derived jet fuel, before the result can be burned in a jet engine.
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Source: International Council on Clean Transportation, National Energy Technology Laboratory Note: In the Fischer–Tropsch reaction scheme, n indicates the number of carbons in the resulting hydrocarbon. For sustainable aviation fuels, this number is typically between 10 and 20.
Generally, commercial aircraft use kerosene fuel called Jet A and Jet A-1. They are a mixture of Paraffin, Naphthene, Aromatics and Olefins and are mostly derived from petroleum. Some companies, such as Airbus, which declined to be interviewed for this story, are looking at hydrogen as a fuel because it produces vapor when burned. But the developing H
Most companies are instead looking at drop-in fuels, or fuels that can work with existing jet engines. They should have similar properties to jet fuel, including their energy released when burned, performance at low temperatures, and flow. Pavlenko says these specifications ensure that the fuel will behave the same way fossil-derived jet fuel does in airplane engines. He says one way for fuel manufacturers to get SAFs to match these specifications is to blend them with conventional jet fuel. However, how much is mixed varies considerably. Most SAFs need to be mixed with Jet A-1 in a 50:50 ratio. According to Pavlenko, while there is interest in SAFs that do not require mixing, none have been commercially approved. Rick Barraza, vice president of administration at alternative fuels company Fulcrum BioEnergy, said in an email that the standards to meet these 100% SAF fuels have not yet been set and will probably take 3-5 years to accomplish. ,
There are three main ways to make SAF: from hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA), Fischer–Tropsch synthetic paraffinic kerosene (FT-SPK), and alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK). All three can be used at approximately the same mixing level of 50%.
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To make HEFA fuel, industrial scientists extract oxygen from molecules of unused vegetable oils, or waste fats, oils and greases. They then treat the mixture with hydrogen to obtain burnable hydrocarbons of the right length for jet fuel, typically between 10 and 20 carbons, according to ICCT. Pavlenko says that compared to Jet A and Jet A-1, these fuels are the most cost-competitive SAF technology.
To create Fischer-Tropsch-SPK, scientists oxidize a variety of plant and human wastes and remains to create a mixture of synthesis gas, H.
And carbon monoxide. Adding a catalyst – usually iron, cobalt, or ruthenium – to this gas triggers Fischer–Tropsch synthesis, which produces hydrocarbons.
Sources of alcohol-to-jet-SPK are crops such as sugarcane and maize, plants and agricultural wastes and in some cases industrial flue gases. Typically, scientists convert these feedstocks into ethanol or isopropyl alcohol and then upgrade the alcohol to long-chain kerosene by removing water, treating it with hydrogen, and combining it with short-chain hydrocarbons.
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Depending on the carbon source, sustainable aviation fuels can produce a large range of greenhouse gases over their lifetime. Scientists compare the carbon footprint of these fuels by looking at life-cycle carbon intensity, measured in grams of CO2 equivalent (g CO2e) released per megajoule of energy burned.
These three alternative fuels do not have the same impact on the environment. ICCT released a report showing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the life cycles of various alternative fuels, including growing or capturing carbon sources, synthesizing the fuels, and combusting them in an engine. The data comes from the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Plan for International Aviation Programme, a United Nations effort.
ICCT found that alcohol-to-jet-SPK fuel has higher emissions than HEFA or Fischer-Tropsch-SPK fuel because producing alcohol from starch-based crops takes a lot of energy and emits substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. It happens. ICCT’s Pavlenko says that in general, biofuels made from waste and by-products have lower greenhouse gas emissions than crop-based ones.
According to Aaron Robinson, senior manager of environmental strategy and sustainability for United Airlines, the SAF industry is shifting more toward such waste-based fuels. Ten years ago, alternative-fuel companies focused on growing crops for biofuels. “Two of our first three SAF flights were powered by agriculturally-grown materials,” he says. “We thought this was the way the industry would move forward.” But life-cycle analyzes have shown how environmentally costly that route can be. Pavlenko says that when the source of fuel is a food crop, the process contributes to deforestation because more land is required to grow additional crops.
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No fuel companies currently produce Fischer-Tropsch-SPK, so based on feedstock, the fuel currently in production with the lowest lifetime GHG emissions is HEFA. “Some SAFs don’t really offer much, if
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