Sustainable aviation fuel is set to become big business with researchers working to make Ireland the easiest place to make it.
While many of us are making efforts to make our daily lives more environmentally friendly – whether it be cycling to work instead of taking the car or ditching single-use plastics – we may still overlook trips abroad on commercial airlines. In 2015 alone, flights worldwide produced 781m tonnes of CO2 from approximately 250m tonnes of kerosene, the most popular jet fuel.
This worrying increase has forced the aviation industry to act to make their aircraft more sustainable not only for the sake of the planet, but their very survival. Under the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, the airline industry has committed to reducing CO2 emissions by half relative to emissions seen in 2005.
All of this means kerosene is no longer fit for purpose in a world experiencing a climate emergency. This is why many engineers and researchers – including some bright, young minds – have proposed many different types of sustainable jet fuel including ones produced by solar energy or from recycled oils.
However, finding which new fuels will work in engines is no longer considered the biggest issue. Rather, the race is on to find the easiest and cheapest way to make these fuels en masse and hopefully kickstart a revolution.
Ireland and sustainable fuels ‘a perfect match’
This is the goal for an Irish team at the Bernal Institute based at the University of Limerick (UL), who last month signed a deal with the Dutch KLM spin-out SkyNRG. The two organisations aim to explore the development of sustainable aviation fuel manufacturing in Ireland.
This could result in a regional sustainable aviation fuel supply chain in Ireland, with SkyNRG’s CEO Maarten van Dijk describing these fuels and the country as “a perfect match”.
Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, Bernal Institute director Prof Luuk van der Wielen said that in an ideal case, an efficient sustainable aviation fuel supply chain could see an 85pc reduction in carbon emissions.
Taking into account that every year there’s about a 4pc increase in passenger kilometres and emissions, he added, then the fuel pool has to be completely sustainable by 2050, which would be a “complete disruption of the industry”.
Looking at UL’s role in bring these sustainable fuels to the skies, van der Wielen said it wants to take what we’ve learned from the traditional industries and find new ways to replicate their efficiency.
‘You don’t just make one product’
“The technology [for sustainable aviation fuel] is set, but you have to look into the residual products that you have in your manufacturing. It’s a little like in an oil refinery. In an oil refinery you don’t just make one product, you make a whole range of lubricants, additives, asphalt etc,” he said.
“[We want to] take the residual streams and turn them into valuable materials such as plastics, fuel additives and carbon fibre. We thereby lower the footprint of the main fuel pool and we improve its cost effectiveness.”
UL has shown itself to be pretty adept at taking renewable resources and using them to produce alternatives for pretty environmentally unfriendly items, such as using tree-based lignin for wind turbine propeller blades. Yet Ireland as a whole, van der Wielen added, could be ideal as a sustainable fuel factory for the world.
The country’s efforts to increase forestation to 18pc coverage by 2046, and regular thinning of trees, would be “good enough to pick up the whole aviation fuel bill”.
“That’s a significant proposal that would build a completely new industry in the country, creating jobs in rural Ireland where we need them. It will help to deliver on this national policy for reforestation while also having a potential outlet for people that want to fly and use [sustainable aviation fuel],” he said.