“The biggest challenges are around scaling up the solutions that we've got,” said David Hone, Chief Climate Adviser for Shell.

Last year, production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) was about 14 million gallons, just 0.1% of total aviation fuel. To ramp SAF to even 2% of total aviation fuel output would require investment of $10 billion to build 20 new refineries, according to estimates by the International Energy Agency.

“Once you reach the very large scale that aviation operates on it has to be a commercial proposition. And the only way it's going to work commercially is by doing more of it to drive the cost down, so economy of scale, but also potentially by introducing policy measures such as carbon pricing to draw in these fuels and make them compete against fossil fuels,” Hone said in a recent interview with Joel Makower, Editor-in-Chief of Greenbiz.com.

“The driving force isn't really quite there yet. We're just seeing that driving force awakened both in the public's eyes and the customer's eyes but also in the regulator's eyes. It's ultimately the regulators, I think, that will drive this to a sustainable conclusion because they will demand, because their voters requested of them, that the aviation sector be at net-zero emissions,” Hone said.

Ushering in a “Low Emissions Age”

Most SAF today is made from cooking oils and animal fats. Eventually, other feedstocks such as non-food crops, seaweed and algae, and wood byproducts will play a role, Hone said.

“There are going to have to be new technologies. Today it's a relatively simple hydro-processing technology that's used to convert used oils, vegetable oils and things into aviation fuels. And that's a scalable option. But I think as we move forward and we look at very large volumes of aviation fuel, there'll probably be new technologies as well.”

SAF is a low-carbon solution for aviation because it is made from biomass, and when that biomass grows, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When the fuel is burned, it returns the same carbon to the atmosphere, where it is then absorbed by new biomass. That creates a closed-loop, net-zero-emissions effect on the atmosphere.

As flight resumes, Hone said the industry may be on the cusp of the “Low Emissions Age”, a time that will fundamentally transform the aviation industry in the same way the Jet Age did.

“It's important to look at the history of the aviation business to try and think about this. This is a business that's grown over the 20th century from nothing to really very significant scale. And it's a business that in the process has fostered change,” Hone said. “We've got to imagine that happening in this transition as well. Now, there's a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing here, but so who's going to step out and make the big order for new fuels? Or who's going to step out and build facilities that manufacture new fuels and offer them into the market?”

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