31 May 2024

Future of UK SAF Production: Key Insights from the 2024 SAF Supply Chain Initiative

Future of UK SAF Production: Key Insights from the 2024 SAF Supply Chain Initiative

The Avioxx team had the pleasure of attending this year’s Sustainable Aviation Fuel Supply Chain Initiative hosted by Innovate UK Business Connect as delegates, exhibitors and sponsors.

Industry events facilitate discussions and collaborations which help advance projects, and in the context of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), a UK-focused conference bringing together all sides of the supply chain is a catalyst for advancing national production.

Major topics centred around feedstocks, government initiatives, integration of SAF into the supply chain, and scale-up and commercialisation.

Turning Feedstocks to Fuel

A key factor to consider with SAF is the type of feedstock, or input material, that is used to make the fuel. Day 1 of the conference featured a session dedicated to exploring different feedstocks and their potential to be made into fuel.

The aviation industry faces significant challenges in its pursuit of SAF despite the abundance of feedstocks. Current SAF technologies focus on turning fats, oils, and grease into fuel, but these feedstocks are in short supply. The UK has only enough used cooking oil to meet about 2% of its aviation fuel demand.

According to Alastair Blanshard, Director of Sustainable Aviation at ICF, the primary issue is not the availability of feedstocks but the lack of facilities to convert them into fuel.

Adam Baisley, Chief Commercial Officer of Olleco, a waste management firm focused on used cooking oil and food waste collection, commented that current UK policy doesn’t encourage domestic production of SAF. Waste oils in Europe are shipped across the world to the United States, which currently dominates SAF production, to be turned into fuel.

Furthermore, there is insufficient emphasis on developing new, innovative feedstocks, which is crucial for the future of SAF. “A feedstock is only a feedstock in theory if we don’t have the technology or the commercialised ability to turn that into a fuel,” says Blanshard. Government and industry must work together to enable development and deployment of technologies to bridge the gap between theoretical feedstock potential and practical implementation.

While progress on the feedstock development front has been lagging, one innovative pathway was highlighted in this session: converting sewage sludge to fuel. James Hygate, CEO of Firefly Green Fuels, discussed their novel process to transform human waste into sustainable fuels and their plans to construct a pioneering SAF plant this year.

Sewage waste is abundant and has a highly consistent composition irrespective of geography, making it an ideal feedstock. The average person produces enough faecal matter annually to generate about 5 L of SAF; with a global population of 8 billion, this translates to a potential 40 billion L of SAF each year.

Firefly's successful development of SAF from sewage underscores the immense potential of investing in diversified feedstocks, offering a promising solution to meet the aviation industry's sustainability goals.

Path to 100% SAF

Path to 100% SAF

Speaking beyond the current SAF landscape, day 2 of the event also featured a session focused on the “Flight Path to 100% SAF” from the perspectives of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Technical experts from Rolls-Royce, Airbus, and Boeing spoke on the adoption of drop-in fuels and the benefits and challenges of introducing non-drop-in fuels.

SAFs used today are equivalent to Jet A/A1 fuel and thus fully compatible with existing aircraft and airport infrastructure. These fuels are deemed drop-in fuels. While drop-in SAF reduces carbon emissions, non-drop-in jet fuels – completely new types of fuel – would offer additional environmental benefits, including lower particulate emissions.

Introducing non-drop-in fuels necessitates new equipment and infrastructure, thorough analysis on scalability and aircraft compatibility, and new protocols to test and certify the fuels. OEMs are already developing engines capable of running on 100% drop-in SAF, but the eventual goal for the industry is to make engines and aircraft that are agnostic to fuel type, compatible with Jet A1 and next generation fuels to come.

Government and Policy Initiatives

Innovators in the UK have recognised the urgent need to transition to SAF, but policymakers must play their part to push research to reality.

The conference took place just a week after the government released details of the UK SAF Mandate. Delegates first heard an opening keynote speech from Andrew Browne, UK Minister for Aviation, Decarbonisation and the Future of Transport, who spoke briefly on the latest policy development.

He was followed by Hazel Schofield, Deputy Head of Low Carbon Fuels at the UK Department for Transport, who provided a detailed explanation of the policy and how it will help drive decarbonisation of the UK aviation industry.

Government and Policy Initiatives

The proposal, set to become law in January 2025, establishes SAF blending targets for jet fuel suppliers through 2040. It mandates that at least 2% of all jet fuel supplied in 2025 come from sustainable sources, with incremental increases every five years to reach 22% by 2040.

Additionally, the mandate limits the use of HEFA (hydrotreated esters and fatty acids) SAF from used cooking oils and sets a minimum requirement for power-to-liquid (PtL) SAF, which is produced from CO2, water, and renewable energy.

Policies are being introduced to guarantee demand for the product, and over the recent years, we saw the establishment of government-backed initiatives like the UK SAF Innovation Programme and UK SAF Clearing House, aimed to provide resources and support for emerging SAF producers. Government participation is crucial in the SAF transition, and these policies and initiatives offer a promising outlook for the UK's growing SAF industry.

The overarching theme from this year’s SAF Supply Chain Initiative is that we don’t just need to innovate, but we need to innovate across all areas of the supply chain to achieve net zero aviation. This includes exploring new feedstocks, developing more efficient production pathways, and designing new fuels and engines. Both industry and government must work in synergy to achieve this goal. The UK is already implementing mandates for SAF, but this must be followed up with incentives to promote research and commercialisation.