FAA Collaborations Advancing Sustainable Aviation Fuels

Increasing the availability of environmentally beneficial alternatives to petroleum-based jet fuel has been a 15-year focus for the FAA.

A commercial jet flying over a fuel tank labeled “biofuel.”

By Jim Tise, FAA

The FAA’s research into sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) has taken on greater importance now that the United States has committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The Biden-Harris administration’s plan shows the key role of SAF to meet this aggressive climate goal.

For more than 15 years, the FAA has overseen and supported research and qualification for various types of SAF. Recently, there has also been a shift towards SAF use by the aviation industry, demonstrated by the growing number of agreements signed by airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and others with SAF producers.

“Flying on SAF could become a routine, boring thing,” said Jim Hileman, FAA chief scientist and technical advisor for environment and energy and program manager for the Center of Excellence for Alternative Jet Fuels and Environment (ASCENT). Making SAF a routine part of aviation is his office’s mission. “Part of what we do every day,” he added.

The FAA focuses on three primary areas with respect to SAF:

  • Tests to ensure fuels are safe for use in aircraft engines.
  • Analysis of the environmental and economic sustainability of various SAF.
  • Coordination of SAF efforts with the aviation industry, academia, U.S. government agencies, and foreign governments.

Benefits to Climate and Air Quality

SAF can be created from a variety of sources, including commodity crops; dedicated energy crops; forestry and agricultural residues; municipal solid waste; other wastes such as used cooking oil and animal fat and grease; industrial waste gases; and even atmospheric carbon dioxide. They offer several important advantages over petroleum-based jet fuel.

“The big benefits are from the perspectives of climate and air quality,” explained Hileman.

Aviation is responsible for 2 to 3 percent of all CO2 emissions produced worldwide. Because SAF aren’t produced from fossil carbon like petroleum-based jet fuel, they can dramatically reduce those carbon emissions. However, well-designed regulations are required to ensure that such fuels do in fact provide reductions in these emissions.

An aeriel view of a forest with a plane outlined within the tree canopy.

“From the air quality side, SAF also produce less particulate matter,” noted Hileman. “It would have less impact on the air we breathe. The air is a bit cleaner near airports and underneath where aircraft fly.”

An Evolving Aviation Industry

Airlines increasingly recognize the importance of integrating SAF into their global operations, with consumers calling for greater environmental responsibility from companies. “Airlines see it as being a necessary part of their operations around the world,” said Hileman. “Airlines are pushing this from around the world, as are aircraft manufacturers.”

For instance, Boeing recently purchased 2 million gallons of SAF, made from inedible agricultural waste, for use in testing and flying its products.

In October 2021, airplane engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce successfully test flew a Boeing 747 with one engine running on 100 percent SAF.

Business jet maker Gulfstream has been delivering aircraft to customers using SAF since 2017.

Finally, members of the OneWorld Alliance recently committed to multi-year fuel purchase agreements with SAF producers.

Rural Economic Impacts

There are economic benefits for communities across the United States as well. Cities and companies that handle municipal waste disposal, or other forms of wastes, could deliver that waste for conversion to SAF. SAF could increase the value of agricultural and forestry residues that currently have no value, as well as create opportunities for the production of new dedicated energy crops. SAF also has the potential to create new markets for farm and forest businesses.

“It creates opportunities for rural communities,” said Bill Goldner, senior advisor for renewable energy, natural resources, and environment at the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“Feedstock supply chains offer good, high-paying jobs. They allow small communities to retain workers and sustain rural prosperity.” -Bill Goldner, USDA

Checking all the Boxes

The USDA has taken a lead role in bioconversion and environmental, social, and economic sustainability analysis, playing an instrumental role in enabling the world’s first commercial flight in 2018 powered in part by SAF produced from cellulosic materials, forest operation, and mill residuals.

Additionally, the Department of Energy (DOE) has heavily invested in SAF research and development and has enabled many SAF production technologies. Their analysis measures the net reduction in carbon emissions resulting from the growing, transporting, converting, and use of the various types of SAF.

“We work on the whole supply chain of SAF versus petroleum-based jet fuel,” said Michael Wang, senior scientist and the director of the Systems Assessment Center at Argonne National Laboratory. His center receives funding from the DOE and simulates the impacts that growing different types of crops have on the ecological system.

Michael Wang (front) with members of his team at Argonne National Laboratory. (Photo courtesy of Argonne)

Argonne has set the “gold standard for lifecycle accounting,” said Hileman. “It has been a real pleasure working with them to ensure that SAF are accurately captured in their tool.”

A Global Goal

Progress on SAF continues on many fronts. In September 2021, the Department of Transportation, DOE, and USDA launched a government-wide Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge to meet the demand for sustainable aviation fuels. They will work with stakeholders in the aviation industry to reduce costs, enhance sustainability, and expand production and use of SAF that achieves a minimum of a 50 percent or greater reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fuel.

The FAA also recently awarded more than $1.4 million to five universities to support the development of sustainable aviation fuel supply chains in different regions across the United States. Since 2014, the FAA has invested more than $13 million in SAF research being conducted by ASCENT.

Globally, the International Civil Aviation Organization relies heavily on FAA research to establish worldwide standards for SAF sustainability, as does ASTM International for ensuring that alternative jet fuels are safe for use. “Internationally, we’re the leaders,” said Hileman.

Hileman looked back on 15 years of FAA support for aviation and SAF. “Industry has really been pushing this, pushing hard,” he said. “They know the importance of dealing with climate change. We’ve had four different presidents since 2006. The thing that has been constant is industry pulling for SAF and us in FAA working hard to make SAF a reality.”

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