As governments and industries begin to face up to the hard work of making good on their net zero emission commitments, the scale of the technical challenge posed by real world decarbonization has become more and more apparent. Aviation is one of the sectors where the rockiness of the road from current reliance on fossil fuels and a decarbonized future is particularly evident, with fewer viable routes than is the case for other transport sectors. Accordingly, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) has emerged as the preferred option for regulators and aviation industry players, with a range of ambitious targets and mandates being set out that envisage the near-complete displacement of petroleum-derived jet fuel by renewable “drop-in” fuels by 2050. For example, the European Union is pursuing a 70 percent share of jet transport energy for SAF in 2050, while the United States is aiming for 100 percent and the aviation industry has committed to achieving net zero emissions.
There are a number of obstacles to the ability of SAF to deliver the huge emission cuts that are required for aviation to hit net zero. Most obviously, the scale of capacity investment involved in displacing a widely-used refined product worldwide is in itself enormous. In NexantECA's estimation, total aviation fuel (petroleum and SAF) is projected at some 440 million tons in 2050; by comparison, SAF production in 2022 was estimated at some 300 000 tons. The United States alone has estimated that some 400 biorefineries will be required to meet its own SAF goals. However, less attention has been paid to another key barrier, namely the fact that the “SAF” that is currently being produced will not be able to go more than halfway towards decarbonizing aviation, given the fact that its paraffinic composition means that it cannot be blended with refinery jet fuel at concentrations of higher than 50 percent. Therefore, any SAF blending above this level is, for the moment, essentially “to be discussed” and rather than a “drop-in fuel”, the product can be viewed more as a jet fuel blendstock.
While this aviation blend wall may not be a pressing issue today – the most ambitious mandates are not envisaging blends of more than around two percent this decade – it will certainly be a problem in the long term if SAF remains the key route to decarbonization. In this paper, NexantECA outlines what it sees as potential ways to use existing refinery assets to produce low carbon blendstocks to complement paraffinic SAF, allowing the creation of truly “drop-in” low carbon jet fuel that can more easily support net zero ambitions.
Steve Slome, Prinipal
Jia Ming Ong, Senior Analyst
Mathew Morton, Managing Consultant
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