The challenge for the aviation sector and fuel suppliers is how to upscale production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) at a sufficient pace to help it work towards its sustainability targets.

First used to power a commercial flight in 2011, SAF has now powered over 300,000 flights, according to IATA. However, in 2019 it made up less than 0.1% of the jet fuel market.2

Produced from renewable and waste sources, unblended SAF has the potential to reduce lifecycle emissions by up to 80%3, compared with conventional jet fuel. SAF is a “drop in solution” which means it can be supported by the existing refuelling infrastructure at airports and aircraft engines do not need any modifications to use it.

A key issue is the current cost of SAF, which remains significantly more expensive than jet fuel. The challenge is to close the gap between what it currently costs to produce SAF and what the aviation industry can afford to pay. Shell Aviation has worked in partnership with the industry’s pioneers ever since the inception of aviation to support progress. Today, it is continuing this spirit of collaboration and partnership to help increase the supply of SAF.

In December 2018, one of the earliest major SAF deals saw Shell partner with World Energy and SkyNRG to begin supplying SAF to KLM, Finnair, and SAS at San Francisco International Airport. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways were later added to this arrangement, and in early 2020, Lufthansa signed up too.4,5 At the time, the deal with the German carrier was one of the largest in the airline industry, with up to one million gallons of SAF to be supplied over the term of the contract.

In September 2020, Shell signed another significant SAF supply deal with Finnish manufacturer Neste to make SAF available to airlines in Europe.6 In the same year it also agreed a major deal, again in partnership with World Energy, to supply over 6 million gallons of SAF to Amazon Air over a multi-year agreement. Shell has also signed off-take agreements with Red Rock and ECB Group to provide guaranteed demand for both producers from their plants in Oregon, USA and Paraguay.

All of these agreements are based on the current available technology called HEFA, the only commercially available method today of producing SAF. But it is commonly acknowledged that no single technology will be capable of meeting the colossal task of delivering the volume of SAF needed globally to replace conventional jet fuel. This is why Shell is investing in a range of additional technology pathways. In 2021, it agreed an investment in LanzaJet, a US-based SAF technology company to help advance and commercialise Alcohol to Jet (AtJ) SAF technology, joining other investors including British Airways, All Nippon Airways, Suncor Energy and Mitsui & Co.7

Shell has announced it will work with Enerkem to produce up to 80,000 tonnes of renewable fuel from hard to recycle waste in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. SAF could make up 75% of this renewable fuel, with production expected to start in 2025/2026.8 Shell has also taken a 40% stake in Enerkem’s Varennes Carbon Recycling, the first waste to low-carbon fuels plant in Québec, Canada. This plant is scheduled to come on stream in 2023 with the option to produce SAF using Fischer-Tropsch technology, first pioneered by Shell to produce synthetic aviation fuel from natural gas in 2009 in partnership with Qatar Airways and Rolls-Royce.

Shell is also invested in developing and testing a cutting-edge waste to fuel technology called IH2, at its Technology Centre in Bangalore, India. This technology uses forestry residues today and will develop agricultural residues and other municipal wastes as the feedstock to produce fuels for transport in the future.

In 2021, Shell partnered with KLM and the Dutch government to fuel the world’s first commercial flight using certified synthetic kerosene from a non-fossil fuel source. This was made from carbon captured from the atmosphere combined with green hydrogen produced from water and renewable electricity.

Although the size of the challenge of scaling up production and use of SAF must not be underestimated, these collaborations have taken the aviation industry one step closer to its goal of net-zero emissions for flight. Shell aims to play its part in this by scaling up SAF production with an aim to produce 2 millions tonnes by 2025. In the longer term, Shell’s aim is that SAF will account for 10% of its total aviation fuel sales by 2030.

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