FAA research grants aim to tackle aviation’s massive deficit of greener fuel

A United Airlines plane takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport November 23, 2021 in Arlington, Virginia.

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday announced a series of new university research grants in hopes of making greener aviation fuel cheaper and less scarce.

Airlines including United, Southwest, Delta, American and others around the world have turned to sustainable aviation fuel to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050. Battery-powered aircraft and other technologies are still years away, making greener fuel a pillar of those efforts.

“Aviation is one of the hardest sectors to decarbonize,” said Michael Wolcott, a materials engineer and one of the university coordinators of the FAA-funded research. Challenges include high capital investment and the long life cycle of aircraft, he said.

Aviation contributes between 2% and 3% of global carbon emissions and the industry expects to grow in the coming years, forcing it to balance its own expansion with its ambitious carbon-cutting targets.

Carriers have already made purchase commitments for the fuels, such as those made with cooking oil or municipal waste, which according to the International Air Transport Association can produce 80% lower emissions than conventional jet fuel.

“There isn’t an airline CEO that I’ve spoken to in the last six or 12 months that does not want to fly SAF,” John Slattery, CEO of airline engine giant General Electric Aviation, told reporters Dec. 1.

His comments came after United Airlines flew (non-paying) passengers, including Slattery, in a Boeing 737 Max 8 using all SAF in one of its two engines, an industry first aimed to draw lawmakers’ attention to how easily carriers could substitute conventional fuel for a greener alternative, and win incentives to increase production.

Supplies are extremely limited. Sustainable aviation fuels account for much less than 1% of the industry’s jet-fuel demand and can cost more than triple the price of conventional fuel.

In September, the Biden administration launched a initiative to boost sustainable aviation fuel to 3 billion gallons a year by 2030.

“For biofuels to get their foot in the door, you need oil to be a lot more expensive than it is now or the cost of biofuels to come down,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor at the University of California-Irvine. “Airlines can do these kinds of events but the raw economics are that the biofuels are not economical now for an airline.”

The $1.4 million FAA is giving five universities will go to research for projects that will explore the viability of construction waste to make fuel at the University of Hawaii and retrofitting existing refineries to make the fuel at Washington State University.

“These funds will help build regional supply chains so that communities across our country — many of them rural — feel the economic benefits of producing sustainable aviation fuel,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in the release.

While far shy of the $250 billion United CEO Scott Kirby estimates it will cost to ramp up production of sustainable aviation fuel, the grants are a part of a series of initiatives the Biden administration announced in September to slash aviation emissions by 20% by 2030.

Those included an industry challenge to produce 3 billion gallons of sustainable fuel for U.S. airlines by that year. U.S. sustainable aviation fuel production is just 4.5 million gallons a year, the White House said.

Kirby says the industry needs private partnerships and incentives like tax credits to spur supply and said the industry needs to look at feed stock beyond the food supply such as crops like corn and sugar.

“Once we get to 10% [of production] the next 10% and 20% gets easier. our goal is to get to 10% by 2030,” he told reporters after the SAF flight landed from Chicago at Washington Reagan National Airport. “The first part is the hardest part.”

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