Feds launch Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge

September 12, 2021 |

Late last week was a huge sustainable aviation fuel news day – from Chevron, Delta, Google, United, Honeywell, Gevo, Alder Fuels to the U.S. Department of Energy’s more than $64 million in funding for 22 biofuel projects. But one thing that caught our eye is the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge created by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal government agencies.

In today’s Digest, what is it? Why are all these feds coming together for SAF? What will the program accomplish for aviation? Find out now.

What is it?

First, what is this Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge all about? The Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge is the result of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other federal government agencies working together to develop a comprehensive strategy for scaling up new technologies to produce sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) on a commercial scale.

The SAF Grand Challenge is the result of DOE, DOT, and USDA launching a government-wide Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will attempt to reduce the cost, enhance the sustainability, and expand the production and use of SAF while:

  • Achieving a minimum of a 50% reduction in life cycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fuel.
  • Meeting a goal of supplying sufficient SAF to meet 100% of aviation fuel demand by 2050.

Who’s doing what?

The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) will serve as the program office responsible for carrying out the goal of the MOU on behalf of DOE. DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration Office of Environment & Energy (AEE), in coordination with DOT’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs, will serve as the program office responsible for carrying out the goals of the MOU on behalf of DOT. And last but not least, the Office of the Secretary will serve as the program office responsible for carrying out the goals of the MOU on behalf of USDA.

Why is this important?

The SAF Grand Challenge and the increased production of SAF will play a critical role in a broader set of actions by the United States government and the private sector to reduce the aviation sector’s emissions in a manner consistent with the goal of net-zero emissions for the U.S. economy, and to put the aviation sector on a pathway to full decarbonization by 2050.

Yes, you read that, full decarbonization for aviation by 2050.

In recognition of the critical role that drop-in synthesized hydrocarbon fuel from waste streams, renewable energy sources, or gaseous carbon oxides—or SAF—will play in addressing the climate change crisis, and its role for jobs and the economy, DOE, DOT, and USDA undertake the MOU to ensure the highest level of collaboration and coordination across the agencies.

Through the MOU, DOE, DOT, and USDA intend to accelerate the research, development, demonstration, and deployment needed for an ambitious government-wide commitment to scale up the production of SAF to 35 billion gallons per year by 2050. A near-term goal of 3 billion gallons per year is established as a milestone for 2030.

Check out the DOE’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel: Review of Technical Pathways Report here.

The Pathways report highlights that research shows an opportunity to produce fuel in which aromatics are initially diluted with the addition of renewable isoalkanes, aromatics are later fully replaced with cycloalkanes, and finally high-performance molecules that provide mission-based value to jet fuel consumers are introduced. Key to this fuel pathway is sourcing the three SAF blendstocks—iso-alkanes, cycloalkanes, and high-performing molecules—from inexpensive resources. When resourced from waste carbon, there are often additional benefits, such as cleaner water when sourcing carbon from wet sludges or less waste going to landfills when sourcing the carbon from municipal solid waste or plastic waste. Jet fuel properties differ from gasoline and diesel, so research will be most successful if it begins with the end result in mind. Part II of the pathways report provides insights resulting from a study of the aviation fuel industry, challenges of and successes with the approved pathways, and BETO capabilities and R&D portfolio.

Why invest in SAF?

The jet fuel market, although smaller than gasoline and diesel fuel markets, still exceeds 26 billion gallons (3.4 exajoules of energy, or greater than 3 quadrillion British thermal units, or Btu), according to the DOE’s SAF Pathways report. “Market growth is expected to double over the next 20 years, while gasoline markets are not expected to grow. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) investment today addresses current and future market needs. The jet fuel market matches biomass availability. The amount of biomass available today—about 340 million tons according to the 2016 Billon-Ton Report—could provide roughly 21 billion gallons, about the size of the jet fuel market (Langholtz, Stokes, and Eaton 2016). As biomass availability is expected to increase, so too does the size of the jet fuel market.”

Bottom Line

SAF will grow, no doubt about that. Even with the Biden administration’s focus on electrification, we know SAF will grow since the commercial jet fleet currently cannot be fully electrified with battery technologies. This federal level MOU between several agencies proves the commitment to SAF is there. Now they are walking the talk and making it happen to achieve solid goals of 3 billion gallons per year by 2030 and 35 billion gallons per year by 2050.

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