There is biofuel for airplanes, so why don’t we fly (or hardly enough) with it?

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

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

Leftovers from forests or old frying fat

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

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

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A fraction of all fuel

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

So just complete? If only it were that easy. Currently, not all flights use biofuel. And if it is used, it is only to a limited extent. At the beginning of this year, KLM announced that on all flights from Amsterdam, 0.5 percent biofuel will be mixed with ‘normal’ kerosene. There are no national obligations here for companies like in France. There must be 1 percent biofuel on board every plane.

Big ambitions with biofuel

The European Commission has great ambitions in mixing sustainable fuels with conventional petroleum. If it is up 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 in 2025.

In 2030, 5% sustainable fuel must be added, in 2050 it must have increased to 63 percent.

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

Almost doubling the ticket price

Because biofuel would be two to three times as expensive as regular kerosene, says aviation expert Joris Melkert from TU Delft. “The cost of a plane ticket consists of approximately 40 percent fuel. So your ticket would be a bit more expensive if you only had to refuel with biofuel.”

Suppose your ticket now costs 100 euros. Then 40 euros of that is for kerosene. 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 went organic, it still wouldn’t work. There simply isn’t that much biofuel. Melkert: “It concerns residual products such as frying fat. We could all probably eat a few more fries, but they have a limited shelf life.” KLM also reports on its own site: “Very little SAF is produced in the world.”

According to Melkert, we will eventually have a problem with bio-sources. “Especially if we want to move towards a circular economy in the future.” This would mean that everything that is used is also recycled. “Then there wouldn’t be anything left for biofuel at all.”

According to Melkert, we should definitely make more use of biofuel in the near future, but that form is ultimately not the future. Synthetic fuel can bring real change. It is sustainable fuel, but homemade, according to Melkert.

‘Unlimited and sustainable’

What exactly is it? The explanation at the Dutch Aerospace Center is a bit technical and therefore perhaps for the enthusiast, but here it goes anyway: “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 CO2 directly from the air, and you can do that indefinitely. We now also have to invest in biofuel, but at some point it will run out. Synthetic fuel is unlimited.”

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