It seems not a day can go by without hearing about sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and particularly the challenges in producing it at volumes that can make a difference to the aviation sector’s carbon footprint.
Anyone following the SAF story knows that there was much excitement about algae about 10 years ago, when it was hailed for its efficiency in converting sunlight, water and fertilizer into fuel.
But the initial wave of startups and investment was dogged by delays and scepticism about scalability.
Now though, the tide is turning again in algae’s favour. In one example, in March this year, United Airlines revealed plans to invest $5 million in biofuel producer Viridos to develop sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from algae.
As Biofuels Digest reported last year: “over the past ten years the algae industry has quietly been overcoming the hurdles. There has been no single breakthrough to make headlines. Instead, dozens of new innovations across the board have improved efficiencies, streamlined processing, and boosted production possibilities.” – Dr. Rebecca White, Dr. Lieve Laurens, Nate Kommers
So why is algae-based SAF making waves again?
SAF is commonly made from feedstock using waste fats, oils, and greases. But SAF created from algae oil is now claimed to have a 70% reduced carbon footprint compared to traditional jet fuel.
What’s more, algae can be grown in seawater vessels, allowing greater quantities of oil to be produced from a smaller land surface area, without depleting freshwater and without impacting on the food chain. And not all algaes are equal: Viridos claims its microalgae can produce up to seven times more oil than wild algae.
However, the bottom line is that bottom lines have been improved. Innovations and research into high productivity algae strains by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s DISCOVR R&D consortium, have reduced the production cost of one ton of algae to $600 per ton when viewed on an nth-plant commercial-scale basis.
Similarly, costs are down for Global Algae Innovations, another research collaborator, at approximately $800 per ton.
Both these improved estimates are conducive to scaled-up commercial production and suggest the world is closing in on a viable sustainable aviation fuel price.
The policy arena is also proving fertile for growth in the algae sector. The international community has committed to decarbonize aviation, but the economic impact and fallout as legislators clash with airlines has been challenging for all sides. If algae can truly be scaled up to reduce emissions, it’s a win for government, carriers and the planet.
Among the rafts of measures around the world, the US’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act made history with the size of its governmental climate change investments and introduced a SAF-specific tax credit for blenders.
Meanwhile, the UK is bringing in mandates for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as part of its Jet Zero Strategy, increasing the current 0.1 per cent SAF in jet fuel 100-fold by 2030 and committing to start building a minimum of five commercial SAF plants in the next two years.
Such positive noises and favourable regulatory and funding frameworks mean conditions are ripe to incentivise research and attract investors. And algae is looking like a rich harvest.