Thought Leadership

Sustainable aviation fuel: The fastest growing clean energy sector?

The aviation sector is a significant contributor to the global cardon dioxide (CO2) footprint, accounting for around 3% of fossil fuel CO2 emissions. So long as the world maintains its commitment to the Paris Agreement, out of all hard-to-abate sectors, the aviation sector also remains the one with the most uncertain abatement path. While electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft may have the potential to gradually displace traditional fossil fuel-based aviation fuel, the path to widespread adoption will certainly span several decades, even if underlying technologies mature and become commercially viable at scale. Therefore, the industry is placing its bet on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which has emerged as a promising alternative that can provide an immediate and feasible solution to the industry’s pursuit of sustainability. Read our special insight from Artem Abramov, Head of Clean Tech Research at Rystad Energy.

SAF is a drop-in fuel with properties almost identical to conventional jet fuel, and it can be produced from various feedstocks, including waste fats and oils as well as agricultural, forestry and municipal solid waste. The production of SAF can significantly reduce the aviation sector’s carbon footprint, while requiring minimal modifications to aircraft and airport logistics.

SAF can be produced through various processing pathways, each at different stages of maturity. Within these four prominent processing pathways, three feature biomass as a feedstock for SAF production. The hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) pathway stands out among the four. This pathway relies on lipids such as waste fats and oils as a second-generation biomass feedstock. Other methods include alcohol-to-jet (ATJ), gasification/Fischer-Tropsch (Gas/FT) and power-to-liquid (PTL) – or e-SAF – all with much lower current technology readiness levels (TRL). The SAF production landscape evolves dynamically, marked by more than 140 operational and planned assets dedicated to fostering a greener aviation industry. The processing methods across these projects differ, with 52% utilizing HEFA, 15% Gas/FT, 14 % ATJ, and 19% employing PTL technologies.

We estimate that by 2030, operational and announced SAF projects will have a combined production capacity of approximately 21 million metric tons per annum (Mtpa). Currently, less than 20% of announced projects are operational. North America, particularly the US, plays a key role and has taken the lead in both current and future assets, shaping the industry's direction. In a market comprising 34 SAF projects, eight of which are already operational, the US demonstrates a tangible commitment to redefining aviation's environmental impact. As these projects unfold, they offer a glimpse into the ambitious future envisaged for the country’s SAF sector, positioning it as a global frontrunner. By 2030, the US aims to produce 8 million Mtpa of SAF fuel, representing approximately 38% of the global market.

Despite ongoing efforts, the costs of SAF remain distant from conventional kerosene prices – and reaching parity by 2050 appears unlikely. Policy scaling is necessary to meet and support the growing demand for SAF. Airlines recognize the imperative for change, reflected in their uptake of offtake agreements; however, the long-term sustainability of SAF supply meeting demand remains uncertain.


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