Aviation: Germany opens world’s first clean jet fuel plant
By Natalie Muller and Neil King
On the day the International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced its commitment to achieve “net zero” CO2 emissions by 2050, the non-profit organization Atmosfair has opened the world’s first factory to produce carbon-neutral jet fuel.
The group, which offers offsets for flight emissions, announced Monday that its Emsland site in northern Germany is expected to start producing eight barrels (about 1 tonne) of synthetic kerosene per day in early 2022. Atmosfair did not disclose how much the project cost or how it was funded.
Synthetic kerosene, also known as e-kerosene or power-to-liquid (PtL), is considered to have enormous potential for reducing the carbon footprint of the aviation industry. But there are several reasons why green fuel has yet to take off.
The plane is one of the most energy-intensive means of transport because the planes are powered by kerosene of fossil origin. The aviation sector is responsible for around 2-3% of global CO2 emissions and wants to cut its footprint in half compared to 2005 by 2050. But decarbonization is going to be a huge challenge.
Why synthetic kerosene?
Electric kerosene is a type of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) that can be blended with conventional jet fuel to reduce flight emissions.
AFS are mainly biofuels made from sustainable raw materials, such as agricultural waste or residues. They are considered a promising alternative as they can reduce emissions by up to 80% over the life of the fuel compared to fossil kerosene.
The Atmosfair plant in Emsland aims to produce carbon neutral synthetic kerosene by combining hydrogen generated by renewable electricity (from nearby wind turbines) and sustainable carbon dioxide – captured in the air and the biomass.
The output is to be mixed with conventional kerosene and transported to Hamburg airport to fuel flights, including those of German carrier Lufthansa.
Current engines can technically run on up to 50% sustainable fuel, but that’s far from a reality at the moment. SAF production currently accounts for around 0.1% of the total aviation fuel consumed globally, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
How much sustainable fuel is there?
Some governments have introduced quotas in an attempt to increase these numbers. Germany, for example, wants 0.5% of the 10 million tonnes used by the German aviation industry each year to be electric kerosene by 2026, with that percentage rising to 2% or 200,000 tonnes by 2030. .
The Atmosfair plant is seen as a way to start manufacturing synthetic kerosene.
The European Union has proposed to set a quota of 2% of SAF from 2025, this quota rising to 5% – including a sub-quota of 0.7% for electric kerosene – from 2030.
E-Kerosene, a Game-Changer?
Achieving these targets will require a massive increase in production and, as German Environment Minister Svenja Schulze pointed out during the inauguration of the e-kerosene production site, it only makes sense if the renewable energies are increased at the same time.
“PtL fuels only serve climate protection if green hydrogen is used. For green hydrogen we need a lot more electricity from renewables,” Schulze said, adding that the technology is available and functional. “Now it’s up to companies to evolve this and I hope many will follow the call.”
The Atmosfair factory in Emsland is only small and not designed for long-term operation, according to the organization’s CEO and founder Dietrich Brockhagen.
“But we wanted to take the first step in Germany to try the technology here and gain experience,” he said.
Ulf Neuling, head of the Renewable Fuels group at Hamburg University of Technology, said the Atmosfair plant is “a step in the right direction to push the production of electric fuels for aviation and to start moving into a commercial application “.
But he stresses that larger factories with higher production capacities will eventually be needed if Germany is to reduce the cost of electric fuels and develop the technology.
Expensive and energy intensive
Electric kerosene is currently four to five times more expensive than conventional jet fuel. It is also energy intensive to produce, requiring large amounts of green carbon dioxide and green hydrogen.
Simply powering domestic flights with electric fuels would require more renewable energy than Germany is currently capable of producing.
About 40% of the electricity produced in Germany still comes from fossil sources; 45% come from renewable energies, but a large part is diverted to help other sectors to decarbonize.
Atmosfair’s Dietrich Brockhagen says current green electricity growth rates mean the world’s aviation could be 100% powered by electric kerosene in less than a decade. But: “There is competition with other sectors, where electricity is more necessary, such as rural electrification. It is therefore doable, but it is a question of allocation and distribution of resources, and therefore of political priorities.
Neuling adds that the huge demand for green energy means that Germany will eventually have to import electricity from other places with high potential to produce renewable electricity at lower cost, such as North Africa, the Middle -East or Latin America.
Germany wants 2% of aviation fuel to be synthetic by 2030.
A future of climate neutral flights?
Electric kerosene, provided it is produced with renewable electricity and available on a larger and more affordable scale, could play an important role in making flight CO2-free – something that will likely take decades to happen. .
Manuel Grebenjak, an activist with the Stay Grounded Network, says the focus on testing alternative fuels to keep us flying is a distraction from the real problem.
“We are in a climate emergency and have no time to waste. Only a reduction in air traffic can reduce emissions quickly enough right now,” he said.
“At the same time, we are still not producing enough renewable energy. So we have to decide: do we want to use the precious green energy for essential things or for the luxury activities of a global minority?
In addition to CO2, planes that fly across the sky release other gases and water vapor into the atmosphere that also contribute to global warming.
Atmosfair says optimizing flight routes and altitudes could help bring these non-CO2 effects of flight close to zero. But he acknowledges that this would require more fuel, and therefore more electricity in the long run, since the production of e-kerosene is very energy intensive. This is just one more problem that will need to be addressed if climate-friendly flights are to become a reality.
Republished with permission from DW.
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