For years, sustainable alternative fuels have been a topic of discussion in the business aviation industry as it looks to improve its overall environmental footprint, but in 2019, those words finally turned to action.
In January, the industry came together at California business aviation hub Van Nuys Airport (VNY) for “Business Jets Fuel Green: A Step Towards Sustainability.” For the first time, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) was available to the business aviation community on a trial basis, with World Fuel and Avfuel supplying the four FBOs on the field with more than 14,000 gallons of blended SAF produced by California-based World Energy and Gevo, respectively. The biofuel blend was in some cases pumped directly into the FBO’s fuel farm to illustrate its absolute compatibility with the existing neat jet fuel and the FBO’s tanks and pumps, while others chose to keep it stored in a refueler and distributed on customer preference.
To further demonstrate the fuel’s acceptability, several OEMs sent aircraft to provide demonstration flights to upload SAF at VNY. Gulfstream, which maintains its own supply of SAF at its Savannah, Georgia headquarters to support its demonstration fleet, dispatched a G280 to VNY, setting a city–speed pair in the process. The Savannah-to-Van Nuys sprint covered 2,243 nm in 4 hours and 49 minutes at an average speed of Mach 0.85. Flying through headwinds averaging 76 knots, the G280 demonstrated the high performance possible with SAF.
“This is drop-in fuel, this is jet-A,” Charles Etter, Gulfstream’s head of environmental and regulatory affairs and technical fellow, told AIN during the cross-country mission. “It has better freeze-point qualities to it, it has more energy density to it, it’s actually a better fuel.” Likewise, Bombardier sent a Challenger 350 and Embraer a Legacy 500 for the SAF-fueled flights, which took groups of conference attendees on an hour-long tour over Southern California.
Given the more than 250 turbine-powered aircraft operations at VNY in the 24 hours after the renewable fuel was delivered for the event, the entire amount was quickly consumed.
SAF a Paradigm Shift
At its most basic level, the use of SAF represents a paradigm shift, according to Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative (CAAFI). Instead of pumping new hydrocarbons from the ground as petroleum, SAF simply recycles the carbon that is already in the atmosphere and is extracted from plants, which use photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.
While there has been much discussion about SAF over the past decade, there has been seemingly little increase in volume. That is attributed to the global economic meltdown, which struck in 2008—a crucial juncture for the nascent biofuel industry. Companies became starved for development capital, thus handicapping the commercialization of large-scale production.
“The financial markets completely seized up, and they were closed for the better part of half a decade before the banks were able to do debt financing again,” said Bryan Sherbacow, COO of commercial biofuels producer World Energy. “It’s now just starting to loosen up again.”
With that funding becoming more available, fuel producers are looking to expand their production capabilities. Texas-based Gevo, which currently produces SAF on a per-batch, on-request basis, expects to increase its output from 100,000 gallons of alternative fuel to 12 to 15 million gallons around 2022. Likewise, California-based World Energy, the only commercial producer of SAF in North America, has a renewable fuel capacity of 40 million gallons a year (currently 15 percent of which consists of SAF) and is also planning to boost its production to 350 million gallons over the next two years.
The worldwide consumption of jet fuel, accounting for all its uses, is approximately 87 billion gallons a year, according to Steve Dryzmalla, World Fuel Services’ senior v-p for business aviation bulk fuel. “In the last couple of years, we’ve been at an order of magnitude of four to five million gallons total [SAF] production, so a very small amount of total worldwide use.”
Of that current amount, most is purchased by the airlines. Indeed, anyone flying commercially out of Los Angeles International Airport is flying on a jet burning some component of SAF, courtesy of United Airlines. Due to an offtake agreement, the airline has poured approximately three million gallons of SAF a year into the airport’s general fuel supply for the past several years.
The business aviation groups hope that, with future production increases, SAF will soon be readily available for their constituents, at least at some key airports. There is an “underlying need to improve fuel access and infrastructure,” David Coleal, Bombardier Business Aircraft president and chair of GAMA’s environment committee, told AIN, adding that will ultimately be triggered by supply and demand. “The bottom line remains that as demand increases, we will need more fuel at more airports, and this will require more production.”
According to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sustainable, plant-based jet biofuels could provide a competitive alternative to conventional jet fuels if currently planned development and scale-up initiatives continue to progress. The study, “Techno-economic analysis and life-cycle greenhouse gas mitigation cost of five routes to bio-jet fuel blendstocks,” published in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, provided evidence that optimizing the biofuel production pipeline is well worth the effort.
While the cost of biofuels is currently around $16 a gallon, compared to $2.50 for conventional jet fuel, the researchers demonstrated that all five current SAF production pathways could create fuel products at that target price, providing the leftover biomaterial from the process could be developed into and sold as a profitable byproduct.
“Our hope is that early in the research stages, we can at least simulate what we think it would look like if you develop these fuel production routes to the point of maturity,” said Corinne Scown, lead author and researcher. “Thankfully the answer is they can be viable, and we’ve identified improvements that need to happen all along the conversion process to make that happen.”
As it continues its support of the use of sustainable aviation fuels within the business aviation sector, the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC) participated in the first ICAO Stocktaking Seminar toward the 2050 Vision for Sustainable Aviation Fuels, which took place at the end of April in Montreal. The event provided a forum for the exchange of aviation fuel information and served as the first step towards the establishment of a quantified 2050 ICAO Vision for Sustainable Aviation Fuel.
IBAC represented the business aviation community at the event, which featured policy and decision-makers from ICAO member states, technical experts from the fuel supply chain, airlines, airports, fuel producers, aircraft manufacturers, and others.
“The goal is to inspire states, industry, and other stakeholders to substitute a significant proportion of conventional aviation fuels with sustainable fuels by 2050,” said IBAC director general Kurt Edwards. “The business aviation community is making progress, but more work needs to be done to increase availability and expand awareness that these drop-in fuels are ready to use today.”
At the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly, which ended earlier this month, IBAC joined broader aviation industry groups in stressing the importance of moving ahead with the Carbon Offsetting and Reductions Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) program as a global approach and avoiding double charging for emissions.
Ahead of EBACE in May, another demonstration—entitled "Fueling the Future"—marked the first time renewable jet fuel was available to private aviation in Europe. It began with North America-based aircraft from OEMs and other operators heading to Europe for the show, having the opportunity to fuel up on Avfuel-supplied SAF at the Sheltair FBO at New York’s Republic Airport before their transatlantic flights.
On May 18, at London-area Farnborough Airport, the SAF coalition—which consists of EBAA, NBAA, GAMA, IBAC, and NATA—hosted a media reception detailing progress in the adoption of the renewable fuel in the year since the launch of the "Business Aviation Guide to the Use of Sustainable Alternative Jet Fuel" at EBACE 2018, including an address by Eurocontrol director general Eamonn Brennan.
“Sustainable aviation fuels and airframe and engine technology improvements are key to aviation minimizing its carbon footprint,” said Brennan, noting that of the three, the use of [SAF] is the most promising near-term option. “The problem is that the cost of production is still too high for aircraft operators. The challenge of industry, and above all governments, is to establish clear long-term policy frameworks and find a way of funding transition costs of what is essentially a huge technological change to achieve the ICAO 2050 Vision for Sustainable Aviation Fuels.”
Aircraft bound for the EBACE static display were then able to fill up with SAF at Farnborough Airport. Though it was planned as a European event, the pure unblended fuel, produced by U.S.-based Gevo from non-feedstock corn, was shipped across the Atlantic by World Fuel Services to the UK, where it was blended with conventional jet-A and trucked to Farnborough.
“We were all very disappointed that we couldn’t get fuel from the European continent,” said Róman Kok, EBAA’s communication manager. “This situation is part of the realities that we face, especially in business aviation, when it comes to sustainable alternative jet fuel and it is especially the reason we’re organizing these events, not only to educate, but also to bring to light to regulators and fuel providers that our industry is ready to jump on this fuel. But availability is still a huge problem.”
For Europe-based aircraft, Caen Airport in France and Sweden’s Stockholm Arlanda also received truckloads of SAF, produced by Neste from used cooking oil and furnished by Air BP. That fuel was delivered to the airports' fuel farms and mixed into the general fuel supply, as evidence of its total compatibility with conventional jet fuel. Combined, the arrival of SAF-fueled aircraft in Geneva represented the business aviation industry’s largest fly-in on the renewable fuel to date.
Last month, Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming joined the ranks of locations for business aviation operators to sample sustainable aviation fuel when Avfuel provided 7,300 gallons of the blended fuel to Jackson Hole Aviation, the airport-operated FBO. The shipment represented a reduction of two metric tons in the life-cycle CO2 emissions.
And in the most recent example just this week, Avfuel, in partnership with the Avflight FBO at Salina Regional Airport (SLN) in Kansas, provided SAF for transient business aircraft traveling here to Las Vegas for NBAA-BACE. OEMs Embraer, Textron Aviation, and Dassault, along with “many other private operators,” fueled with the SAF en route to the show. (Gulfstream also used its own sustainable fuel supply to fly the G280, G500, G600, and G650ER it has on static display this week at Henderson Executive Airport.)
“This was Avfuel’s fourth product demonstration of the viability of SAF specifically in business aviation,” said Avfuel manager of alternative fuels Keith Sawyer, adding his company is steadfast in its obligation to support the industry’s commitment to reduce its impact on climate change. “We are thankful to all who made this SAF demonstration possible, including the Avflight team and the various operators who agreed to fuel with the product. We need more such willing participants in the industry to encourage production and overcome the industry’s largest SAF challenge to date—availability.”