27 September 2022

GreenAir News

Reporting on aviation and the environment

United, Delta and other US airlines engage in initiatives to ramp up sustainable fuel supply

United Airlines Ventures (UAV) has announced an investment in New York-based Dimensional Energy, the airline group’s fourth move into sustainable aviation fuel production, and its first into power-to-liquid (PtL) technology, in which carbon dioxide is transformed into SAF. United has also agreed to purchase at least 300 million gallons of SAF from Dimensional over 20 years, adding to multiple existing agreements that the airline claims add up to the biggest collective SAF commitment by any airline. The deal caps off a flurry of fresh SAF announcements across the US, from Hawaii to New York, as the air transport industry intensifies efforts to cut its carbon emissions. A project involving Delta Air Lines and Neste is now delivering SAF through fuel pipeline systems direct to New York LaGuardia. Meanwhile, there have been renewed calls from across the US aviation sector for greater government incentives to expedite and increase the availability of affordable supplies of SAF, reports Tony Harrington.

Dimensional Energy converts carbon dioxide and water into usable ingredients for the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process that can turn those elements and others into liquid fuels. While this system has been widely used to create fossil fuels, Dimensional claims it will be one of the first to produce sustainable aviation fuels from the process. Last year, the company’s activities attracted funding from climate technology investor Elemental Excelerator, through which it was introduced to United, which wants to cut emissions directly rather than through offsets.

“Sometimes you have to look to the past to solve new problems and we recognise that decarbonising air travel is going to require combining proven technologies, such as Fischer-Tropsch, with the latest advances in science and engineering,” said United Airlines Ventures President Michael Leskinen. “As we grow our portfolio of companies like Dimensional, we are creating opportunities to scale these early-stage technologies and achieve United’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050, without the use of traditional carbon offsets.”

UAV has already invested in SAF producer Alder Fuels, from which United Airlines will acquire up to 1.5 billion gallons of SAF, while United itself has bought into Fulcrum Bioenergy, together with an option to buy up to 900 million gallons of SAF. As well, UAV recently invested in Cemvita Factory, a US-based synthetic biology company which is planning SAF production.

Dimensional says it can transform carbon dioxide from sources including direct emissions from industrial sites, direct air capture and biological paths including fermentation and biomass gasification, providing United with some protection from the constraints of feedstock availability affecting other biofuel pathways. Last year, in Tucson, Arizona, the company began constructing a CO2-to-fuels facility, part-powered by locally-produced renewable energy, and expects to begin operating next month.

”United’s support of sustainable aviation fuel made from captured emissions is an important step in the aviation industry’s pursuit of carbon neutrality,” said Jason Salfi, CEO and joint founder of Dimensional Energy. “We envision a world run on truly conflict-free energy that can scale to meet the global demand for hydrocarbon fuels and feedstocks.”

Meanwhile, competitor Delta Air Lines was one of four participants in a milestone project to deliver the first supplies of SAF to New York’s LaGuardia Airport using existing infrastructure. The fuel was processed in Texas by waste-to-SAF producer Neste, then transported via the Colonial and Buckeye pipeline systems to the airport to power a Delta flight. “SAF is the most effective tool we have to decarbonise our industry,” said Delta’s Chief Sustainability Officer, Pamela Fletcher. “These efforts show how existing infrastructure can be used to transport SAF to east coast airports and drive down emissions, a critical step as we move toward a more sustainable future for air travel.”   

The fuel was loaded by Neste into the Colonial Pipeline and pumped almost 1,500 miles to New Jersey, where it was transferred into the Buckeye Pipeline which feeds LaGuardia Airport. “The US east coast is home to some of the USA’s busiest airports and the vast majority of them get their fuel from the Colonial Pipeline system and, in New York, the Buckeye Pipeline system,” added Chris Cooper, Neste’s VP of Renewable Aviation in the Americas. “What we’re doing here is showing that just around the corner is a future where passengers at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, up to LaGuardia, JFK (Kennedy Airport) and EWR (Newark Airport) can board a plane flying on SAF.”

Delta and Neste have called for additional government policy settings and supply chain incentives in the US to increase production pf SAF, while driving down its cost. Announcing the LaGuardia initiative, they said: “A SAF Blender’s Tax Credit, for example, that is technology and raw material-neutral, will even the playing field between SAF and fossil jet fuel. At the state level, a Low Carbon Fuel Standard with voluntary opt-in provisions for SAF will provide a policy framework with a proven track record to incentivise SAF production and speed the development of cleaner infrastructure, supporting healthier environments for our communities.”

In Los Angeles, alongside the IX Summit of the Americas, at a roundtable event they hosted on sustainable air transport, industry body IATA and Boeing also ramped up pressure on governments to support SAF production with incentives.

”To reach the industry’s net zero goal, governmental support is critical to developing policies that efficiently accelerate the commercial production and deployment of SAF,” said Peter Cerdá, IATA’s Regional VP for the Americas.

Landon Loomis, Boeing’s VP Latin America, Caribbean and Global Policy, added: “The message from the experts at the roundtable is clear. In addition to a sector-wide partnership, it takes policy commitments, technology deployment and infrastructure efficiency improvements to achieve the industry’s commitment to reach decarbonisation by mid-century.”

Corresponding with the event, Boeing and seven airlines – Aeromexico, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, COPA Airlines, Delta, United and WestJet – collectively bought 100,000 gallons of SAF (379,000 litres) from World Energy to part-power flights from Los Angeles International Airport, collectively cutting their CO2 emissions by around 472,000 pounds (214.3 tonnes).

In a message to the roundtable, John Kerry, US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, said: “Reducing emissions from hard to decarbonise sectors like aviation is essential to tackling climate change. I am encouraged by the commitment of airlines worldwide to scale up the use of sustainable aviation fuels, which have the potential to not only significantly reduce emissions in-sector but also to provide economic opportunity.”

As part of its 2022 ecoDemonstrator programme, Boeing will fly one of its own 777-200ER aircraft using a 30/70 SAF blend for all test flights. During the next six months of flight and ground tests, Boeing will evaluate around 30 new technologies aimed at improving sustainability and safety for the aerospace industry, including a water conservation system to reduce aircraft weight and fuel, and technologies to improve operational efficiency.

Separately in Honolulu, Hawaiian Airlines announced a partnership with Par Hawaii, one of the state’s largest energy providers, to explore the viability of developing SAF in the islands from sustainable crops, while in Houston, Texas, renewable energy start-up No Carbon Air announced plans to produce sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen fuel, and other green energy sources through Fischer-Tropsch conversion of landfill materials including municipal solid waste, hazardous materials, tyres, waste coal, sludges and other waste streams. The company’s CEO, Bill Smith, said the waste, once converted to synthetic gas, would be processed through an FT system capable of producing 3,000 gallons of sustainable jet fuel per day, or 1 million gallons per year.

Photo: United Airlines