Fuel decision - Jet -A or Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
Hype risk - cheaper oil from cheaper oil! Genetic engineering of biofuel at scale and price competitive with oil!
Fuel decision between Jet A and renewable fuel can dramatically change the level of air services provided on the supply side and air travel use on the demand side.
The figures show that these targets are challenging. Until 2020, the global number of flights has been rising for decades. In 2018 alone, over 4,3 billion passengers got on a plane – 62% more than in 2010. Three main reasons are often cited to explain these developments: booming low-cost carriers, a growing global middle class, and an increasing airport infrastructure (led by the Asia Pacific region). It is expected that the global passenger traffic will return to pre-COVID levels in 2024, and subsequently further increase.
To combat rising emissions, the aviation industry is investing in alternative fuel concepts with potential environmental benefits. Compared to conventional fossil fuels, sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) have the potential to cut emissions substantially. Therefore, the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels is highly important to meet increasing demands and lower greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.
What are Sustainable Aviation Fuels? Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) are non–conventional (non-fossil-derived) aviation fuels. While SAF is the term connoted by IATA to describe this type of fuel, other terms such as sustainable alternative fuel, sustainable alternative jet fuel, renewable jet fuel, or biojet fuel can oftentimes be used to mean the same thing. The chemical and physical characteristics of SAF are almost identical to those of conventional jet fuel and they can be safely mixed with the latter to varying degrees, use the same supply infrastructure, and do not require the adaptation of aircraft or engines. Fuels with these properties are called “drop-in fuels” (i.e., fuels that can be automatically incorporated into existing airport fueling systems).
For aviation fuels to be deemed as ‘sustainable’ they must meet certain sustainability criteria, including for instance a reduction in life cycle carbon emissions and ensuring that feedstocks used for SAF production are not obtained from high carbon stock lands.
Benefits of Sustainable Aviation Fuels? The use of sustainable aviation fuels can reduce life cycle emissions by up to 80% compared to conventional fossil fuels SAF enable a more diverse geographic supply and degree of energy security No modification of transport systems or airport fueling systems is necessary, as SAF are generally “drop-in fuels” Beyond sustainable aviation fuels, the concept of “Lower Carbon Aviation Fuels” (LCAF) is based on prospective technologies that may allow the production of fossil fuels with a lower carbon footprint, such as carbon capture, utilization and storage and the use of renewable energy in oil refineries.
In all cases, it is important to verify compliance with voluntary or mandatory sustainability criteria. In 2016, a set of sustainability criteria for CORSIA eligible SAF was approved by the ICAO council. These include:
At least 10% net GHG emissions reductions compared to the baseline life cycle emissions values for aviation fuel on a life cycle basis No land use change of land with high carbon stock (primary forests, wetlands and peatlands) on or after 01 January 2008 As a well-experienced sustainability certification scheme, ISCC is in the position to guarantee compliance and enhance traceability through site-specific audits. ISCC’s vast experience in road transportation is of high value when it comes to certifying sustainable aviation fuels. Since large volumes of certified feedstock are already available and many major fuel producers are ISCC members, SAF certification with ISCC is feasible and practical.
These companies still emphasize first and foremost in their branding eco-friendliness (saving sharks, replacing palm oil, reducing carbon emissions)— though there’s an entire cohort of anti-GMO NGOs in the business of debunking their claims to net environmental or social good.
The long arc of early aughts biofuels is instructive in how you might be less likely to land among the stars than in the shampoo-making business. In stretching for something very out of reach—cheaper oil than cheap oil—companies stumbled and reactively had to scramble for a sure bet to keep things going. The surest bets were often conservative industries: cosmetics, industrial lubricants, plastic. In the various reflections and course corrections of the current big tech reckoning, it’s worth remembering moonshots, rather than jumpstarting the revolution, can set industries up for reactive returns to tried and true ways of making a profit.TThe change offers a surprising example of how the business of heavily hyped new technologies can transform over time.
To understand this dramatic redirection, it’s helpful to know why there were so many of these companies in the early 2000s. Biofuels, as defined by the Department of Energy, are any kind of plant mass converted into a liquid fuel for transportation needs. Some of the first flurries of biofuel development in the United States came in the 1970s, a product, in part, of the decade’s oil crisis. Research experimented with using the U.S.’s ample supply of corn as a feedstock to produce ethanol as fuel, but the projects never produced the kinds of yields needed to make a meaningful dent in the oil and gas industry. Interest faded, then renewed again in the early 2000s, thanks to the war in Iraq and louder climate change alarm bells. Government subsidies became available for research into alternative energy sources, just when the field of biotech was making significant technological strides. In particular, the tools of DNA sequencing saw major breakthroughs, making it exponentially easier to manipulate the genetic of sequences of living things toward productive ends. For biofuel, that meant the possibility of using genetic modifications to supercharge the feedstock or microbes involved in fuel production.Labs and start-up companies began to crop up to develop next-generation biofuels using this genetic engineering. It’s the sort of thing that sits well in a Wired magazine spread and sounds cool and clever and elegant (or at least did to me as a 23-year-old looking for a job out of college), but it also starts on the foundation of a nearly impossible premise. These companies were set up to do expensive research and development to try coax a living thing to make fuel for less money than tapping already existing oil out of the ground. They were trying to make something as cheap as oil, a thing so thoroughly embedded in the economy by virtue of its cheapness.
The people steering the ship of these companies knew they were gambling on bad odds. Amyris was founded in 2003 as part of this cohort, and its origin story included the famous venture capital entrepreneur Vinod Khosla egging its founders on in just that way: “Set your sights on diesel. It’s the hardest thing you’d want to do, but it’s the biggest market out there, and you’ll build an incredible company.”
By the late aughts, nearly all these companies had run into considerable financial and technical difficulties. Making fuel from bioengineered microbes, at a technical level, seemed possible; making them at scale and price competitive was a different story. In 2010, in a well-publicized stumble, Amyris CEO John Melo promised investors that by 2011, the company would be making 6-9 million liters of its fuel, farnesene, each year, and 40-60 million by 2012. Those numbers would have been virtually inconsequential to the oil and gas industry, where Melo was picked up from. But they were also completely unrealistic for biotechnology, and the company ultimately was only able to deliver 1 million liters in 2011. Nearly every other company experienced less dramatic versions of the same thing: unable to deliver on production goals that were already modest. Many—maybe most—of these start-ups went completely under: Range Fuels, Sapphire Energy, Coskata, KiOR, and Beta Renewables were all celebrated and have now all shuttered. Companies trying to avoid collapse had to find a new strategy and find it quickly.
The most successful rehabilitations began with the recognition that the fuel being produced by bioengineered microbes was closely related to several other chemicals attached to much higher price tags. Genetic engineering may not have had the horsepower to produce hundreds of millions of liters of product per year, but it did have the finesse to tweak fuels into other products. This made it possible to start with an already-developed base chemical and turn it into something relevant to several different industries. Amyris and Solazyme at different points pursued industrial lubricants, rubber replacements, plastic additives, food additives, nutritional supplements, and fish food. Gevo, Enerkem, Neste, Virent Energy, LS9, and Cobalt Technologies are just few of the other biofuel companies that have variously pursued rubber, plastics, chemicals, textiles, paints, adhesive, solvents, and detergent ingredients. This shift was pervasive enough in the industry that the annual hype list from Biofuels Digest, the Hottest 50 Companies in Bioenergy, by 2012 was expanded into the much clumsier Hottest in Biobased and Renewable Chemicals, and in 2017, the even more nebulous Hottest in Advanced Bioeconomy. In one sense, companies were diversifying their revenue streams; in another, they were throwing spaghetti at the wall.
These kinds of pursuits were initially positioned more as detours—ventures to pay the bills while pursuing biofuels as on a more realistic, long-term timeline. But the more time has gone on, the more the biofuels have fallen out of view. To a degree, this flexibility was always part of the strategy. Amyris, for instance, got its start in an academic lab making the anti-malarial medication artemisinin before switching to biofuels. But the emphasis on building a platform for bioengineering, with an agnosticism toward the products going to market, seems to have increased over time. By now, most of the still existing biofuel companies have more firmly settled into their new niches. For some companies, like Gevo and Neste, that niche is petrochemical replacements; other companies, like Amyris, Lanzatech, and Solazyme (before it filed for bankruptcy in 2017), made official moves to rebrand themselves as players in the cosmetics industry.
The transition was disappointing for me as a lab tech willing to work for lower pay at a start-up with “meaningful” work over a comparable job in big pharma. I watched the industry go from making something meant to be revolutionary and mission-driven, to things a bit scattered and, in all honesty, boring. Again, it made sense: After developing a certain kind of technology for at least 10 years, you might as well use it for something, and there are worse things in the world to make than a pretty nice moisturizer. These companies still emphasize first and foremost in their branding eco-friendliness (saving sharks, replacing palm oil, reducing carbon emissions)— though there’s an entire cohort of anti-GMO NGOs in the business of debunking their claims to net environmental or social good.
If the world needed just one more piece of evidence that substituting one kind of extractive logic for another isn’t likely to solve our environmental problems, here it is. But it’s also worth noticing the underlying logic where those bad odds keep getting gambled on: taking the moonshot. A few months ago, Freakonomics had an episode with Vinod Khosla essentially dispensing the exact same advice he had to the Amyris founders 20 years ago— “go for the moon.” He argued that when you dream big, even if you miss, you’ll still land somewhere greater than if you had hedged your bets and played it safe.
The long arc of early aughts biofuels is instructive in how you might be less likely to land among the stars than in the shampoo-making business. In stretching for something very out of reach—cheaper oil than cheap oil—companies stumbled and reactively had to scramble for a sure bet to keep things going. The surest bets were often conservative industries: cosmetics, industrial lubricants, plastic. In the various reflections and course corrections of the current big tech reckoning, it’s worth remembering moonshots, rather than jumpstarting the revolution, can set industries up for reactive returns to tried and true ways of making a profit.