Editorial Feature

Accelerating Carbon-Neutral Aircraft Technology with the World's First Clean Jet Fuel Plant

Atmosfair unveiled the world’s first commercial clean jet fuel plant on 4 October 2021, producing synthetic e-kerosene - a sustainable alternative to petroleum-based kerosene.

aircraft, e-kerosene

Image Credit: Issarawat Tattong/Shutterstock.com

The plant, which is situated in the town of Werlte, a district of Emsland, Germany, has been built by Atmosfair, a non-profit organization founded in 2005. It provides e-kerosene that can be used in jet planes with little technical modifications.

E-Kerosene: An E-fuel to Replace Most Carbon-Intensive Sector of Economy

The aviation industry is carbon-intensive, accounting for 2.5% of worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) that contribute to climate change. Therefore, the Air Transport Association (IATA) recently announced plans to become net-zero by 2050.

One way to achieve this is to invest and expand upon the commercial use of e-kerosene, known as a type of e-fuel, a synthetic alternative to fossil fuels.

What is E-Kerosene and How is it Produced?

E-kerosene is a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), made from biofuel feedstocks found in waste products or agriculture residues. It is generated by combining hydrogen (H2) with CO2. The term e-fuel covers all fuels produced by electricity, with e-kerosene being a sub-category suitable for aviation. 

For e-kerosene to generate zero greenhouse gas emissions, the hydrogen required needs to be produced using renewable electricity, known as green hydrogen. It must also capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere in a process known as direct air capture (DAC). 

Alternatively, CO2 could be captured from industrial sites, or point-source CO2, which collects gas from fossil fuel industries. However, this is not considered fully net-zero, since it is taken from fossil fuel burning industries instead of the air.

Atmosfair’s process is to use water and electricity generated by four nearby wind farms to produce hydrogen. This is combined with CO2 taken from the atmosphere in a nearby biogas facility close to Werlte, where it is refined to make jet fuel.

Advantages of Advanced Biofuels Over Conventional Biofuels

Bioenergy is produced from either first-generation conventional biofuel such as sugar, starch, palm oil, rapeseed, soy, beets, corn, and wheat, or from advanced, second/third generation biofuels that do not compete directly with food production, such as wastes and agricultural residues.

Major concerns about conventional biofuels exist because the land is deforested to make way for palm oil plantations and soy monocultures. These degrade biodiversity, threaten endangered species, and destroy habitats that indigenous people depend upon to live and grow food.

Synthetic e-kerosene, such as that produced by the plant in Germany, is an advanced bioenergy source, using wastes and agriculture residues via sustainable methods. It does not compete with food production, interfere with environmentally sensitive land, or threaten species and people.

It can be mixed with conventional kerosene by up to 50%, which current jet engines can use. This creates the benefit of reducing emissions by up to 80% over the lifetime of the fuel, compared to conventional kerosene alone.

Paris Climate Agreement (COP 21)

The Paris Climate Agreement is a legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 parties in Paris, on 12 December 2015, and entered force in 2016.

It is considered a landmark agreement to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. It considers technological development and transfer for improving resilience to climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Agreement sets out a technological framework to accelerate technology development and transfer, through policy and implementation.

Parties to the agreement must establish carbon-neutral targets with companies to achieve net-zero carbon solutions.

German Government Green Aviation Jet Fuel Roadmap

In May 2021, German Chancellor Angela Merkal’s government agreed on a roadmap with the German aviation industry for the development of green aviation fuel.

The roadmap aims to ensure at least 200,000 tons of synthetic fuel is used each year from 2030, which is about a third of current fuel consumption.

Germany currently produces around 45% of its electricity from renewable energy and has set out further ambitious targets in its Climate Action Plan 2050 to demonstrate its commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement. 

Germany’s Transport Sector is tasked with contributing a 40-42% cut to the 2030 target, compared to 1990.

The Future of Sustainable Aviation Fuel and Challenges to Overcome

SAF currently accounts for 0.1% of total global aviation fuel. The German aviation industry wants 0.5% of the 10 million tons of German consumption to be e-kerosene by 2026, but major investment and scaling up of production plants is needed.

Renewable production of hydrogen must be increased in conjunction with increasing renewables, as more green hydrogen requires more electricity from renewable sources.

To make it commercially viable, bigger plants are needed with greater production outputs to drive down the cost of producing e-fuels.

E-kerosene, at €5 per liter by 2030 is feasible, but very expensive, around 4-5 times more expensive to produce than conventional jet fuel.

Despite this drawback, German carrier Lufthansa has placed its first order and has committed to buying 25,000 liters per year for the next five years.

Production of e-kerosene at the German plant currently produces 336 gallons of jet fuel, which is only enough to fill one small passenger plane every three weeks. IATA claims 95 billion gallons of fuel is needed if global air travel returns to pre-pandemic consumption levels.

Carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes are two ways of driving up the price of fossil fuels to make synthetic kerosene more competitive. Currently, there are only 64 carbon policies in place worldwide, covering approximately 22% of emissions. The US, Australia, India, and the Persian Gulf States have no carbon pricing in operation.

The final challenge remains to scale up the production of e-kerosene using fully sustainable electricity that does not drive the poor practice of buying up land in economically poorer countries to situate new plants. 

European Union and European Commission E-Kerosene Targets

To facilitate the scaling up of e-kerosene production and reduce emissions, Lufthansa, airports, fuel producers, and environment campaigners have united by writing an open letter to the European Union. It calls for binding targets for airlines to use 0.5-1% e-kerosene from green hydrogen in 2027, and 2.5% in 2030. They also demand penalty fees for those failing to comply.

The EU has proposed selling a quota of SAF’s from 2025, rising to 5% e-kerosene from 2030.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has released its ‘Fit for 55’ RefuelEU mandate, placing an obligation on fuel suppliers to blend a minimum volume of SAF into conventional aviation fuel, with a separate volume for e-kerosene from 2030.  

The amount increases in increments every five years, starting at 0.7% e-kerosene in 2030, to a minimum of 28% e-kerosene by 2050.

References and Further Reading

Aviation: Germany Opens World’s First Plant for Clean Jet Fuel in Ecowatch (04.10.2021 Muller.N, King.N) https://www.ecowatch.com/clean-jet-fuel-germany-2655220447.html

World’s first commercial plant making clean jet fuel has opened in Germany, says NGO (04.10.2021 AP, Euronews) https://www.euronews.com/2021/10/04/world-s-first-commercial-plant-making-clean-jet-fuel-has-opened-in-germany-says-ngo

The Paris Agreement 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 12.12.2015 www.unfccc.int/sites/default/files/english_paris_agreement.pdf

‘The Paris Agreement’ Climate Action UNFCC www.un.org/en/climatechange/paris-agreement

Aviation: Germany opens world’s first plant for clean jet fuel (4.10.21 N.King. Muller.N) https://www.dw.com/en/sustainable-aviation-fuel-power-to-liquid/a-59398405

Why are biofuels bad for rainforests? (Butler.R.2020) https://rainforests.mongabay.com/kids/elementary/biofuels.html

Sustainable Feedstocks for Advanced Biofuels and Intermediate Bioenergy Carriers Production In Europe. https://www.etipbioenergy.eu/everyone/biofuel-feedstocks

FAQ: the what and how of e-kerosene (Feb 2021) in TransportEnvironment.org https://www.transportenvironment.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/FAQ-e-kerosene-1.pdf

German govt, aviation sector agree on ‘green’ aviation fuel plan in Reuters (May 6, 2021 https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/german-govt-aviation-sector-agree-green-aviation-fuel-plan-2021-05-06/

National Climate Policy, Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. https://www.bmuv.de/en/

Lufthansa, Campaigners, urge EU to set ‘e-kerosene’ green jet fuel target (Stauss.M in Reuters 30.6.2021) https://www.reuters.com/business/sustainable-business/lufthansa-campaigners-urge-eu-set-e-kerosene-green-jet-fuel-target-2021-06-30/

European Commission’s RefuelEu Aviation Proposal details SAF blending obligation on fuel suppliers (Van Dyk.S, 16.7.2021) https://www.greenairnews.com/?p=1374

‘Carbon Pricing Around The World’ Citizens Climate Lobby (updated 28.06.2021) https://citizensclimatelobby.org/laser-talks/carbon-prices-around-world/

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Georgie Lyng

Written by

Georgie Lyng

Georgie Lyng is a freelance writer, with a strong interest in environmental issues, a focus on sustainable technologies, climate change science, improving biodiversity, and protection of natural ecosystems. Georgie completed an Open University BSc Environment Studies degree in 2016, enjoys researching environment issues, and writing about the latest scientific developments in the industry and sustainable solutions to help protect the environment.

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