Sustainable Aviation Fuel: The journey to creating greener air travel
Our final episode of our podcast mini-series, The Driving Force, welcomes Jacqueline (Jacqui) Sutton MBE, Former Chief Customer Officer at Rolls-Royce Civil Aerospace, to be our guest. Jacqui talks about her experience in the aviation industry, the impact of Covid 19, how far the industry has progressed with the development of sustainable aviation fuel and other key innovations that are aiming to ensure that we can keep taking to the skies without destroying the environment.
Read on for some snippets of this fascinating conversation, or listen now to the full episode.
What innovations did you see as a result of the pandemic?
‘One of the amazing innovations that happened was the adaptation of the engine sensor information that we already use, but cobbling that together with other databases that we’d got, in order to gain really important information about which aircraft was flying, for which airlines and in which parts of the world. Because another thing you’re under pressure to produce, of course, for your investors and for, for the banks that are considering whether to lend you more money, was some kind of forecast of when things were going to come back. Or how would we know which types of aircraft and how many would be flying again, you know, in three months time, six months time. So the data of what was actually happening out there was really important.’
How important do you think air travel is to us as human beings?
‘I think that travel connecting people is a force for good. I genuinely believe that. I think if you think about stereotypes, prejudice, misunderstandings, you know, they tend to arise from lack of awareness, experience, particularly of people. Air travel has provided the opportunity to connect people that would never otherwise have been connected. But that doesn’t mean that the aviation industry itself shouldn’t take responsibility and do something about the impact that it has on the climate.’
Is it possible to power aircraft by electricity or hydrogen?
‘There’s what you call the commuter planes. A commuter plane would be fewer than 50 seats doing, you know, on average, less than an hour’s flight. These kinds of aircraft, research shows could actually be modified to either be electric or hydrogen powered.
‘[For longer flights], they’ve got a larger aircraft to do it with, and therefore they’re burning more fuel to do so because they’re heavier. If you do the trade, you know of either hydrogen or battery, it simply wouldn’t be worth carrying that extra weight around. So the battery I’m sure you would all understand is heavier. But my understanding on the hydrogen side, there would be liquid hydrogen for which you need heavy, very well reinforced fuel tanks that are literally four times the weight of of a normal kerosene fuel tank on an aircraft. So you can quickly see that the trades not going to work. So you’re now in this sustainable aviation fuel category.’
What is Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)?
‘It’s sometimes also called biofuel. And it’s a fuel that’s very cleverly made out of waste, oil, or fats or domestic waste. The reason it’s sustainable is that it’s coming from sources that are non food stock or water supply related. And you know, in a way you’re kind of recycling the carbon that would have been made to produce that oil in the first place. That’s now a waste oil. So it’s quite a smart solution. And the attraction of it is that it has 80% greater efficiency from a carbon footprint perspective than kerosene does.’
Have any flights actually used SAF or is this still being developed?
‘It’s already happening. There’s something around 440,000 flights have already happened using sustainable aviation fuel.’
What are the challenges in moving towards using SAF?
‘The ability to get enough of it, partly the cost, but also, because it’s still being proven.
‘There are aspects around the fuel tanks on the aircraft, and the Airbus’ and Boeings have to continue to do some work around 100% SAF and its ability to circulate around the aircraft and the fuel tanks. So to get to 100%, there’s still some work to be done not just by the engine manufacturers, but also by the aircraft manufacturer. But the supply problem yes is the biggest’
Does the move towards SAF need to happen quicker and who’s driving that?
‘I think, undoubtedly, there’s a feeling that it needs to happen more quickly, because the scale of the challenge is so great. And the airlines for one, feel, we’ve pinned our colours to the mast by making this netzero 2050 commitment. But we need the supply in order to have a hope of being able to get there and some governments are being more proactive than others .’
What do you think governments should be doing to support the move towards SAF?
‘The IATA Director General makes a very good point about that incentivized carrot approach being much more effective than the stick approach. So government has historically taxed airlines in terms of carbon with air passenger duty, it’s called. So those of us that fly will have paid that extra tax on the ticket. But the point they make is that that tax doesn’t then get recirculated and used for green purposes. So it’s just an extra tax. If you build something that properly incentivizes, and we pay more on our ticket, but it’s incentivizing around SAF production, you’d feel better wouldn’t you because you’d be able to see how that is being used, as an investment to accelerate and grow the supply.’
What other innovations have you seen in the airline industry that are improving its sustainability?
‘There’s a business that’s introduced something called Wheel Tug, where they basically installed a very simple, twin electrical motor device into the rim of the nosewheel of the aircraft, which means that it’s powered by the APU, which is the auxiliary power unit at the back of the aircraft. But this electrical wheel tug can basically then be used to steer the aircraft out onto the runway or back onto the ramp. And the advantage of that is that in certain cases, airlines have to use engine power to guide themselves back to the stand, which is obviously much less efficient than just a couple of electrical motors on the nosewheel being able to guide the aircraft around.’
Listen to the full episode – available now
To hear everything Jacqui has to say on how the aviation industry is driving a sustainable future, listen to the full episode on our website or through your favourite podcast channel.