Airline makes first flight with 100% renewable fuel

Swedish company makes historic flight, but sector will need much more volume to meet decarbonization targets

The news went unnoticed outside aviation circles, but a 1h11 flight between Malmö and Stockholm last week will go down in history: for the first time a commercial aircraft has flown using only renewable fuels.

Operated by the Swedish company Braathens, the French-Italian ATR’s twin-engine turboprop made the journey burning only biofuel based on plant residues, animal fats and recycled material, including used cooking oil.

According to Neste, the Finnish company that manufactures sustainable aviation fuel (known by the acronym SAF), its product represents a reduction of up to 80% in greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional aviation kerosene.

The aircraft had only three crew members – despite being one of the main routes within Sweden, there were no passengers on board.

Some regulators allow mixing up to 50% of renewables, but most areas use SAFs in small amounts.

The Braathens flight received special approval from the European Union’s air safety authority.

Commercial aviation accounts for between 2% and 3% of the world’s total CO2 emissions, and the sector has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050.

Sustainable fuels will be key to achieving this goal, as in the current state of technology, only small planes can be equipped with batteries and electric motors.

Green hydrogen, another alternative to decarbonization, will also take time to become viable.

Sustainable fuels are already there and are successfully used as a blend. One of the objectives of the Braathens flight was precisely to show that it is possible to go beyond the 50% allowed by most international regulators.

plug and play

One of the main advantages of the SAF is the compatibility with traditional kerosene engines. The necessary adaptations are simple and cost very little compared to the other options.

The Swedish company has already announced its intention to use renewable fuels on 100% of its domestic lines from 2030.

There are several possible routes for the production of SAFs, and one of the most relevant is the one that involves biomass – a type of raw material in which Brazil is admittedly competitive.

BSBios, for example, is investing US$ 1 billion in a production unit in Paraguay with the objective of producing 1 billion liters of fuel of organic origin, including a green kerosene for airplanes. The company’s biorefinery is still in the planning stage, but interest is growing. Another Brazilian company that has been looking at this market segment is Raízen.

Jonathan Wood, vice president of renewable aviation at Neste, said in a recent interview that both airlines and airports wanted to know everything about SAFs even before the energy shock caused by the Ukraine war.

Neste currently produces 120 million liters of SAF at its two plants, one in the Netherlands and the other in Singapore. The plan is to increase this volume by up to 15 times by the end of next year. The Finns already have among their customers American Airlines, Ryanair and Etihad, among others.

United Airlines has committed to halving its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035 (compared to the 2019 base year).

During a meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) last week, the airline’s CEO, Scott Kirby, said that SAF is the “most important thing” the company is doing.

“We commit [com a de compra] more than twice as much SAF as the rest of the airlines. We are investing in technology. We have ten to twelve investments in startups that work with different raw materials,” said Scott.

Dry bread?

But, as he himself added, sustainable fuels are a drop in the ocean of fossils that planes have been burning every day for decades.

According to one estimate, AFS accounts for less than 0.1% of global consumption. Today, even if they wanted to fill half their jet tanks with the greener alternative, airlines simply wouldn’t have anywhere to get that greener alternative.

“We can set the goals we want, with the dates we want, but if there is no offer…”, Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, said at the IATA meeting.

With the price of oil soaring, the big oil companies would have the necessary financial support to ensure a smooth transition.

The most cynical comment was made by Tony Douglas, head of Etihad Airways, from the United Arab Emirates.

According to columnist Peggy Hollinger of the Financial Times, Douglas suggested that airlift decarbonization targets are unrealistic and that many of the executives only committed to them because they know they will be long retired and will not be held accountable when they are inevitably breached.

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