Flight100 Underscores Need to Scale Up SAF Production

Nov. 29, 2023
Sustainable aviation fuel can help the aviation industry reduce its carbon emissions, but larger quantities of the drop-in fuel are required before wide-spread adoption can occur.

When Virgin Atlantic’s Flight100 completed its journey from London Heathrow Airport (LHR) to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), it marked the first transatlantic commercial flight completely powered by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Stakeholders applauded the feat, highlighting a complex collaboration between several players to showcase SAF’s capability and demonstrate that it is a viable drop-in replacement for traditional jet fuel.

“Flight100 proves that sustainable aviation fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonizing long-haul aviation. It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further,” Shai Weiss, CEO at Virgin Atlantic, said in a press release celebrating the successful flight. “There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place.  Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

Tim Worledge of Fastmarkets, a price reporting agency (PRA) for global commodities, including the metals and mining, forest products. and agriculture markets issued a statement agreeing with the need to scale up SAF.

“This milestone flight represents not just a leap forward but also a clarion call for the airline industry, showcasing the art of the possible while underscoring the work that remains to be done,” he said. “However, with the UK and EU aiming for escalating sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) mandates, peaking at 70 percent by 2050, the industry faces a steep production challenge. The focus now is to invest in scaling up SAF production, with a critical focus on securing the necessary feedstocks.

“Waste-based feedstocks, like used cooking oil, are poised to lead this growth, although competition with biodiesel production for these resources is fierce,” he continued. “The ensuing disruption will have profound and far-reaching implications for niche but prized feedstocks, like tallow and animal fats, to mainstream vegetable oils, affecting soybeans, palm oil and rapeseed coverage.”

Worledge also said technological advancements are also broadening SAF's potential feedstock base, with alcohol-to-jet pathways opening doors to grain and sugar-based ethanol.

“This could send ripples through a vast array of agricultural sectors to meat production, the forest sector and beyond,” he said. “Moreover, the EU and UK mandates are part of a global movement, with the US also targeting a substantial SAF increase, aiming for 35 billion gallons by 2050—a volume that dwarfs current ethanol production and underscores the monumental scale of this endeavor.

“As we navigate this transformative era, the industry must not only reimagine its fuel supply chains but also its relationship with the broader ecosystem it inhabits.”