- Scientists have found a way of turning food waste into sustainable air-fuel that can power flights.
- Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory said it could reduce emissions by 165%.
- Test flights are due to begin in 2023 with Southwest Airlines and production will be ramped up.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Although most of the world’s food waste currently gives rise to methane gas and contributes to climate change, researchers in the US have found a way to use food waste to produce sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
By turning “wet waste” into a kind of paraffin that powers jet engines, researchers claim their method reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 165% compared to fossil fuels, according to the BBC.
Their figure combines both the reductions in greenhouse gases emitted by airplanes and the emissions avoided by not sending food waste to landfills where it gives rise to methane gas.
From a market in India that turns 10 tons of food waste into energy to a factory in Indiana turning plastic waste into eco-friendly fuel, innovative solutions are on the rise as both the food and tech industries change rapidly.
A breakthrough moment
The scientists are from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the University of Dayton, Yale University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and airlines including Southwest have already started collaborating with them.
With global passenger numbers expected to double by 2040, airlines are having to think seriously about how to cut their emissions. Delta Air Lines committed $1 billion last year to become carbon neutral by 2030.
According to NREL, airlines currently contribute 9% of greenhouse gas emissions in the US.
“If our refining pathway is scaled up, it could take as little as a year or two for airlines like Southwest to get the fuel regulatory approvals they need to start using wet waste SAF in commercial flights,” NREL scientist Derek Vardon and corresponding author of the paper said in a press release. “That means net-zero-carbon flights are on the horizon earlier than some might have thought.”
The scientists use catalytic conversion to produce paraffin
The researchers’ method interrupts the conversion of food waste into methane and produces volatile fatty acids.
Using catalytic conversion, they produced two types of sustainable paraffin.
Combining these two types and then mixing 70% of the result with jet fuel produced a suitable mixture that still meets airline fuel criteria.
“Since the SAF blend would have a carbon footprint 165% lower than fossil jet, that blend is high enough to decarbonize flight,” Vardon said.
Aside from a huge reduction in fossil fuel usage and putting food waste to good use, flights using SAF would produce 34% less soot than the flights of today.
“That’s where we see the most potential for this technology is that you’re preventing methane emissions, and dramatically lowering the carbon footprint of jet fuel,” Vardon told the BBC. “And you just can’t do that with fossil fuels without getting into things like offsets.”
While SAF wouldn’t completely solve the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, it would provide a lifeline for an industry that is undergoing a reevaluation amidst the coronavirus health crisis.
“It is undeniable that SAF’s role in reducing emissions across the industry and at Southwest will be significant,” said Michael AuBuchon, Southwest’s senior director of fuel supply chain management. “NREL’s research could provide a game-changing opportunity to make SAF cost-effective, leading to its larger-scale deployment.”
The research team plans to begin test flights with Southwest Airlines in 2023.