Blog 24 Nov 2020 

Fuelling a greener, brighter future in aviation

What does the future of the aviation industry look like with sustainable fuel?

Jonathan Rand

Jonathan Rand

Technology and Innovation Officer

COVID-19 has been devastating for the aviation industry. In early April airline capacity was down by 75%; the largest retrenchment in aviation history.

The headline numbers tell their own story: Virgin Atlantic cutting a 1,150 jobs after completing a £1.2bn rescue plan (it has already slashed a third of its work force and ended its Gatwick operations), Rolls-Royce confirming 3000 job losses in UK, Gatwick Airport planning to slash a quarter of its workforce and Airbus planning to cut over 10% of its 134,000 global work force with 1,700 set to go in the UK.

Before the pandemic, the UK had, with a turnover of over £60 billion pa and employment of over 100,000, the second-largest aerospace manufacturing sector and the third-largest aviation network in the world. This contribution to UK PLC was especially understood in our wider HVMC community where significant income, partnerships and client base has been from the aviation sector.

Even before lockdown, the airline sector was experiencing turbulence with the first cries of flygskam’ or flight shame being heard; environmental consciousness was impacting the travelling public and in-turn the aviation industry, and therefore HVMC.

There is also the significant matter of meeting the Net Zero 2050 obligations; UK aviation has committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The question was, and still is, how can aviation be greener? New lighter and more efficiently powered aircraft were replacing older fleet, however, due to the size of the fleet and lifespan of aircraft, many of the current fleets will still be in operation through the 2030s, 40s and 50s and the cash to achieve this has just flown away with COVID-19. There has to be a retrofit solution that supports the current fleet, a bridge to a time when efficient gas-turbine engines, hybrid electric and fully electric aircraft can be a significant solution for long haul flights and not just for the short hops. An answer is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) which has also been acknowledged in UK government’s recent announcement of the Jet Zero Council.

SAF is where fossil-derived jet fuel is replaced by fuels sourced from more sustainable sources of carbon, such as industrial waste gases or syngas. This could contribute to a reduction of up to 70% in CO2 emissions across the fuel life cycle. Over the past decade, a number of process technologies have emerged, however, the viable technology routes and production volumes are a small fraction of what is required to meet demand. Within the UK there has been a number of initiatives to produce SAF and industry is engaged and seeking support, however many of the solutions offered, primarily from the US, do not fit the available UK feedstocks.

The vision of CPI is to use its gas-fermentation expertise, capability and networks to create a bio-chemo-catalytic hybrid route to SAF. CPI/HVMC have identified viable routes to drop-in’ SAF and have been collaborating on proposals with academia and industry to establish Proof of Concepts for these fuels. The aim is to develop a SAF production process, tolerant of the impurities and variability of carbon and hydrogen-rich industrial waste and renewable gases and one that does not compete for agricultural and forestry resources. The development of a commercially viable SAF process will lead to increased market uptake and will place the UK at the vanguard of the commercial SAF market.

Discover how we support companies in their alternative fuel innovation.

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