The future of aviation: SAFs sustainable aviation fuels
Although most flights are currently grounded, we expect air traffic to take off again when the Corona crisis ends. In our last article you could read about the decrease of air pollution due to the Coronavirus. What is the role of airplanes in air pollution? And are there any alternatives?
Airplanes have changed our lives. They have made it possible to have a long weekend city trip or discover far away new cultures, visit your family for Christmas or move globally for business. Airplanes can make all of this possible in a short time and potentially at a cheap price. The possibility to take a flight anywhere has fallen away these days. This leads to a lot of problems for many people. Air traffic has many benefits, but are there downsides? What are the consequences for the environment? And are there ways to make airplanes more sustainable? In this article, we would like to introduce SAFs to you! How would you feel about eating french fries to reduce the impact of your flight?
How did aviation started?
Back in 1914, on the first day of the year, the first commercial flight worldwide [photo] was scheduled in the U.S. . The flight lasted for 23 minutes and crossed 34 kilometers, only transporting one passenger. Since this historical moment, every year more and more people are using this way of transport. In 2019, approximately 4.5 billion passengers flew globally . It is expected that in 2050 the number of passengers scheduled could be 16 billion .
The first flight of a commercial airline was in a Benoist airboat piloted by Tony Jannus.
(Image: © University of South Florida)
Because of aviation, travel became faster and more affordable. The whole globe is reachable within one day of flying. So, what is the problem? Emissions. Airplanes have an incredibly high level of greenhouse gas emissions, in particular, CO2 . Most airplanes run on kerosene. This is extracted from oil, which is a fossil fuel. Emissions of airplanes currently make up about 2,5% of all CO2 emitted worldwide. Expectations are that this could be 25% by 2050 .
Being able to take flights benefits our global society as a whole. Giving up aviation would mean a drawback in the efficiency of transport of people and goods. The current Corona situation again presents us how much we rely of air traffic. But, for the sake of the planet, we need to make these flights less polluting. We need to find the balance, we need to do it as soon as possible.
Luckily, different companies figured that problem and are working on solutions. Today, I want to share with you one which is already in use: SAFs.
What are SAFs?
SAF stands for Sustainable Aviation Fuel. To be defined as SAF, a fuel needs to emit at least 50% less greenhouse gasses than the fossil fuel that it replaces . At the moment we already have 6 SAFs, but more are in the process to be approved .
Some of them come from biomass (organic matter that can be converted into energy) . Others come from cooking oil, sugars of alcohols. Each SAF will emit some greenhouse gases, in varying percentages. The most interesting SAF in my opinion is the one coming from biomass. The CO2 emitted for this one is often calculated as 0, because the carbon that will be emitted by its use was already absorbed from the atmosphere. This is because plants and trees take up CO2 for their growth (photosynthesis). As long as we keep on planting trees and plants, new biomass absorbs the same amount of CO2 as will be released during combustion. 
In terms of production, Europe is way further than the rest of the globe . The most developed technique is based on the SAF that comes from cooking oil. How cool would be if you receive a bag of fries with your flight as a by-product of your flight?!?
Who is already using it?
Of course you all want to know which companies offer this more sustainable way of flying! It is unfortunately not that easy to decide on that. Different companies all over the world are using SAFs now on some flights or mixed with traditional fuels . But, we can say that in general the use of SAFs is still really low compared to the potential capacity . It is important to understand that SAFs are a good way to have less polluting flights, but it is not only the only way! Different companies use offset plans that can have the similar results :).
I would like to mention, just to be proud of my new country, that KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines) ran the first commercial flight using SAFs carrying 171 passengers on the flight KL1233 from Amsterdam to Paris on June 2011. The use is this relatively new and full in development!
Problems with SAFs
The SAFs are already available and ready to be used, so what is stopping you to enjoy your fries at your gate? Well, first of all we have to figure out a common problem with the sustainability transition, money. Yes, SAFs are great and green, but guess what? Currently, they are also more expensive than fuels from fossil fuels. A normal fuel costs around 600 euros/ton (1000 kg), while the SAFs can cost between 950 and 1015 euros/ton . So unless people are willing to pay more for their ticket, the transition to SAFs use might develop slowly.
The other problem is that unfortunately the production is still not very developed and the processes are still complex and long. Furthermore, the process, including cultivation, is still not very well developed, causing direct and indirect emissions. The growth of crops will require a lot of land and water as well. For that reason, there is still ongoing discussion on the real effect of the use of SAFs and their capacity to replace kerosene completely .
We want to show you how to live more sustainably without losing grip on society. Sometimes, taking a flight is the only option. If you are stuck now at the other side of the world, and the only way to be repatriated back to your country is by flight.. well, the choice is pretty easy! But, if you have to choice between various forms of transport, your choice matters! Air traffic is one of the sectors in which sustainable change is very hard to achieve. Keep this in mind when planning your next city trip. The current Corona crisis also shows us how efficient we can work online. Maybe in the future, some business meetings will be scheduled online instead. It saves time, money and a lot of emissions!
– Try to avoid flights! It sounds maybe like an open door, but if you live in Europe like us there are a lot of flixbuses going anywhere. Until you’re 27, you can also get discount on Interrail cards, which allows you to ‘train’ all through Europe. Amazing views guaranteed!
-When you book a flight, think about an offset plan, for example have a look at this website:
-When take a flight, check the policy of this company on sustainability. Maybe they are already using SAFs or offset plans.
Did you like our article? This one was only the first solution for the future of the aviation, but it is not the only one! Do you want to know more? Keep following us!