There is biofuel for aircraft, so why do we not fly (or barely) with it?

Biofuel, also called Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) in a difficult term. More and more airlines are betting on it and already advertising for it. For example, investing in biofuels at KLM is part of the ‘CO2 zero program’. A term for which KLM has been reprimanded by the Advertising Code Committee.

This sustainable jet fuel is there and is also used, but it relates to only a very small part of the spent fuel. Why do we (almost) not use that fuel?

Remains from forests or old frying fat

To answer that question, we must first know what SAF exactly is. “SAF is a low-emission jet fuel that we will produce from fossil-free electricity and recycled carbon dioxide from district heating,” writes energy supplier Vattenfall.

It still sounds a little cryptic. The Netherlands Aerospace Center describes it a little more understandably. “Biofuels can, for example, be made from residual streams from agriculture or forestry or from used frying fat. Despite the fact that they are residual streams (waste, that is), they can function as raw materials for fuel production.”

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A fraction of all fuel

That sounds like a good idea, biofuel. And especially when you hear that it saves about 80 percent CO2 in the air compared to fossil petroleum, which is now refueled in aircraft. Another advantage: the biofuel can be used in the aircraft in no time, no modification is needed.

So just complete? If only it were that easy. Currently, not all flights use biofuels. And if it is used, it is only to a limited extent. Earlier this year, KLM announced that on all flights from Amsterdam, 0.5 percent biofuel will be blended with ‘normal’ petroleum. There are no national obligations here for companies as in France. There must be 1 percent biofuel on board each aircraft.

Big ambitions with biofuels

The European Commission has great ambitions in mixing sustainable fuels with ordinary petroleum. According to Commissioner Frans Timmermans, who is responsible for the EU Commission’s Fit for 55 Sustainability Plan, 2 percent of SAF will already be used by 2025.

By 2030, 5% of sustainable fuel must be added, by 2050 it must have increased to 63 percent.

So it’s not going very fast yet, but why not? Is the fuel suitable? That’s right, but there are two major problems with biofuels. And you guessed it, one of them is money.

Almost a doubling of the ticket price

For biofuel would be two to three times as expensive as ordinary petroleum, says aviation expert Joris Melkert from TU Delft. “The cost of an airline ticket is about 40 percent fuel. So your ticket would be a little more expensive if only biofuels had to be refueled.”

Assume that your ticket now costs 100 euros. Then 40 euros of it is for petroleum. The biofuel would cost – if that fuel is three times as expensive – 120 euros. In total, you end up with a ticket of 180 euros. Almost a doubling. In that sense, it is not surprising that companies do not choose this, but it is certainly not a green choice.

Synthetic fuel

But even if all airlines chose organic, it still would not work. There is simply not that amount of biofuel. Melkert: “These are residual products such as frying fat. We might all be able to eat a little more fries, but they have a limited shelf life.” KLM also reports on its own page: “Very little SAF is produced in the world.”

According to Melkert, in the long run we will have a problem with bio-sources. “Especially if we want to move towards a circular economy in the future.” That would mean that everything that is used is also recycled. “Then there should be nothing left for biofuels at all.”

According to Melkert, we should certainly make more use of biofuels in the near future, but that form is ultimately not the future. Synthetic fuel can bring real change. It’s sustainable fuel, but so homemade, at Melkert.

‘Unlimited and sustainable’

What exactly is it? The explanation at Holland Aerospace Center is a bit technical and therefore perhaps for the enthusiast, but here it still comes: “With synthetic fuels, CO2 is removed from the air using special technology. It can then react with green hydrogen – made using electrolysis based on renewable electricity, and therefore carbon neutral – to make the hydrocarbons that make up petroleum. “

Melkert says that we have now ‘taken the first steps’ in that area. “You can pick up CO2 directly from the air, and you can do that indefinitely. We now also have to focus on biofuels, but at some point it will run up. Synthetic fuels are unlimited.”

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