INSIGHT: Tech advances in eFuels to slash cost of making SAF – Honeywell, HIF Global
NEW YORK (ICIS)–Economics pose a major challenge to the scale-up and adoption of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) but advancements in early-stage technology, particularly in eFuels, will dramatically lower costs in the coming years, according to executives at Honeywell and HIF Global.
The challenge is huge. To meet climate goals, the industry will need to produce 23bn litres (23m tonnes) of SAF by 2030, an order of magnitude from the 300m litres produced in 2022, said Peter Cerda, regional vice president, the Americas, at the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Cerda moderated a panel of executives from Honeywell, United Airlines, HIF Global and Supernal at an event in New York.
“Today the cost of producing eSAF [eFuel SAF] is about 2-3x the cost of regular aviation fuel. That’s why it’s going to be very important to spread that over the entire fuel base so that on a per unit of total aviation fuel in the world, it’s a very small increase,” said Meg Gentle, executive director of eFuels producer HIF Global.
Green hydrogen is being combined with carbon dioxide (CO2) to produce methanol. The methanol is then used to produce eFuels, including SAF or eSAF. These eFuels represent an 85-95% reduction in carbon intensity, she pointed out.
“These technologies are at a fairly early stage of adoption so there’s a lot of runway ahead of them,” said Gavin Towler, corporate chief scientist, sustainable technologies, and chief sustainability officer at Honeywell, who pointed out that the oil and gas industry has been improving refining technologies for the past 160 years.
Electrolysis will be one key area of advancement as it is “very early days for green hydrogen”, he said. Scaling up solar manufacturing and leveraging developments in electronics will also be applied to the production of green hydrogen via electrolysis.
With eFuels, the production of SAF is no longer constrained by limited supplies of used cooking oil and other residual fats as feedstock.
“The fears of a feedstock limitation to SAF are really more related to biofuels or used cooking oil but eFuels don’t use those feedstocks,” said Gentle from HIF Global.
On the cost side, it will come down to electrolysers and carbon capture, including reducing the cost of direct air capture (DAC) of CO2 by a factor of 10, she added.
“The industry is going to be able to do that. As we start manufacturing electrolysers – not one at a time but hundreds at a time, we’re going to bring down the cost of producing hydrogen,” said Gentle.
“And many new technologies, which HIF is also testing to bring the cost of DAC down from $800/tonne today to less than $200/tonne, will make the CO2 feedstock essentially limitless because it’s just the air,” she added.
Direct air capture (DAC) of CO2 is currently very expensive but also will improve over time, Towler noted.
While CO2 can more cheaply be captured from industrial sources, that feedstock source will also become more limited as sectors decarbonise, he said.
Producing SAF from cellulosic ethanol will also see cost reductions as this industry becomes more efficient, he added.
In October 2022, Honeywell announced its new ethanol-to-jet fuel (ETJ) processing technology that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% on a total lifecycle basis versus conventional jet fuel. Honeywell has a suite of technologies to produce SAF – from used cooking oil, to ethanol to green methanol (to produce eFuels or eSAF).
The future of SAF at scale is eFuels, which in theory would be free from feedstock limitations.
“To really go to the ultimate [destination], you want to go to eFuels – a full circular carbon economy where you take renewable power, pull CO2 out of the air, electrolyse water to hydrogen, react [CO2] and hydrogen to make methanol, and then turn the methanol into jet fuel,” said Towler.
“All of these things give me optimism that costs will continue to come down, and that the idea of SAF being on parity with petroleum jet is not a technical impossibility,” he added.
However, the expectation that the cost of SAF will be lower in the future is not a reason to delay action, he said, pointing out the potential for irreversible climate change impacts.
Government incentives to develop and scale the industry will be critical for the ultimate transition to SAF, the panellists emphasised.
“The long-term objective is parity to conventional fuel… There is a transition period… That’s where government participation is important, whether it’s a carrot or stick based approach. Someone needs to fund that in an interim period,” said Andrew Chang, managing director at United Airlines Ventures.
United Airlines shares the green premium of SAF purchases with corporate partners that have their own sustainability targets, but this is temporary as customers want a viable long-term economical solution, he noted.
And it’s not only the aviation sector seeking low-carbon fuels but shipping and ground transport as well.
“The challenge we have is not only serving aviation demand but also eFuels going to shipping and also for road transport,” said Gentle, who pointed out that Porsche is partnering with HIF to produce eFuel in Chile. Porsche in 2022 announced a $75m investment in HIF Global.
HIF Global is planning to build an eFuels project in Matagorda County, Texas that would produce around 200m gal/year of shipping fuel and eGasoline by 2027.
Insight article by Joseph Chang
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