The airline sector’s bet on the energy transition, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is starting to make its first takeoffs to become a substitute for aviation kerosene (QAV), derived from petroleum. Tests around the world already include international travel.
Brazil has great potential to take advantage of as a fuel supplier, in its various technological routes. With an abundance of land to produce raw materials and extensive experience in the production of biofuels, the country is emerging as a possible “SAF OPEC”. Embraer carried out successful evaluations, and Raízen plans to build an exclusive plant to produce this fuel.
However, a major obstacle prevents the technology from “taking off” for good: cost. In a sector where fuel represents close to half of costs, this makes all the difference.
Recently, the vice-president and minister of Development, Geraldo Alckmin (PSB), defended incentives for the new fuel. “In the beginning, there needs to be an incentive,” said Alckmin after an event at the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham), recalling what happened with wind and solar sources. “There needs to be a stimulus for a new technological route. Then it scales and the price drops,” he added.
According to him, this would be done through the Fuel of the Future bill, sent by the federal government to Congress, which includes among its measures the creation of the National Sustainable Aviation Fuel Program (ProBioQAV).
The program’s goals are aligned with the international commitments that Brazil signed in 2022 at the Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to reduce emissions in international air transport.
The reductions will be gradual and will accompany the increase in the mix of sustainable fuels in the aircraft. From 2027, airlines will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1%, reaching 10% in 2037.
Among the various alternatives adopted by companies to achieve their goals, the use of sustainable fuels is the main one. Produced from renewable sources such as biomass, ethanol and even algae, SAF reduces greenhouse gas emissions by between 70% and 90%.
It turns out that the least harmful fuel to the environment can be up to five times more expensive than fossil fuel aircraft. And fueling planes is the biggest expense of air travel, representing up to 40% of its total cost.
The math is difficult to conclude: SAF needs production scale to become cheaper, but it will not gain scale if it does not become more accessible. Incentives, therefore, would be a way to mitigate the financial impact. It is the path the United States has chosen. Europe, in turn, chose to make the use of SAF mandatory.
While SAF production does not gain scale and the Brazilian government does not decide what its strategy will be, airlines prefer to wait, either for incentives or for an obligation to use sustainable fuel.
First transatlantic flight with SAF will be at the end of the month
Current SAF production is sufficient for just 0.15% of global demand. Its development is still very restricted to the testing phase, however, some results are beginning to stimulate the market. The biggest advances are in Europe, Japan and the United States, where flights have already been carried out using only “green” fuel.
The first transatlantic flight powered exclusively by SAF will be carried out at the end of the month by Virgin Atlantic, from London (United Kingdom) to New York (USA). The objective is to test and demonstrate the viability of fuel from renewable sources.
The flight is led by Virgin Atlantic and jointly funded by a consortium including the Department for Transport, Rolls Royce, Boeing, University of Sheffield, Imperial College London and Rocky Mountain Institute.
Raízen plans first SAF plant in Brazil
Embraer recently carried out flights on two jet models fueled only with SAF. According to the Brazilian aircraft manufacturer, the tests provided “significant information about the performance of an engine’s systems when using mixtures of up to 100% SAF”.
Today, Embraer aircraft can mix up to 50% of SAF with aviation kerosene. The goal is for the company’s operations to be carbon neutral by 2040. The company also has a letter of intent to receive fuel from Raízen when it produces SAF.
In August, Raízen achieved certification of its ethanol for the production of SAF in compliance with the sustainability rules of Corsia, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (Icao) emissions reduction program.
Raízen is the largest ethanol producer in the country and is waiting for SAF to gain industrial scale in the United States, which is a way of confirming its efficiency, before starting the construction of a plant that will produce the new fuel.
“The forecast is that an industrial-scale plant will start operating later this year in the USA. With proven international technology, we are studying the development of alcohol for aviation and possible investments in producing it in Brazil SAF from ethanol”, says Raphael Nascimento, director of New Business in Trading at Raízen.
According to him, it will take three to four years to build a plant to produce sustainable jet fuel.
Nascimento defends ethanol: “Naturally, we look at it. It is competitive, has a low carbon footprint and is available. It is an efficient solution from a cost and carbon perspective. It is already widely tested and used. For 2030 or so, we believe that between 20% and 25% of SAF production will come from alcohol.”
Airlines seek cheaper alternatives to decarbonize
“We have news of investments for the production of SAF in Brazil, but there is not enough volume to gain scale”, says the president of the Brazilian Association of Airlines (Abear), Jurema Monteiro.
Without scale, the price continues to rise, which has led airlines to choose to wait to use SAF on their aircraft, even though previous tests have been successful.
“In the short term, these are fleet renewals, route optimization, among others. In the medium term, the idea is that the regulated carbon market will allow some compensation mechanism. And in the long term, the SAF”, assesses Jurema.
Gol carried out its first tests with SAF ten years ago and has since operated more than 360 flights. Despite the positive results, the company plans to use it effectively only when it is mandatory, given its high cost, which would affect operations and ticket prices.
In order not to fail to meet decarbonization targets, Gol adopted a gas emission compensation model called Book & Claim. In this system, the company buys carbon credits generated by companies outside the country that use SAF.
Eduardo Calderon, director of Gol’s Operations and Engineering Control Center, points out that there are other initiatives, such as changing technology and 14% of aircraft in the coming years and optimizing energy efficiency.
“None of them, however, are comparable to fuel, which is the biggest cost of a flight. SAF accounts for 65% of four initiatives that Gol has,” he says.
Latam has committed to incorporating 5% of SAF into its operations by 2030. To reduce or offset the equivalent of 50% of domestic emissions by 2050 and be a carbon neutral company, it announced an agreement with the manufacturer Airbus. They will finance a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on initiatives to decarbonize aviation in Latin America.
Ligia Sato, Sustainability Manager at Latam Brasil, observes that the current production of SAF in Brazil is limited and does not meet the needs of airlines in quantity, reinforcing the need for incentives and regularization.
“Scale production to fully meet companies’ needs requires a regulatory framework with clear and coherent rules, legal security for investments, as well as adequate incentives and taxation”, he says.
The executive defends that there are public policies that “really encourage sustainable and accessible aviation” and highlights that, in addition to the use of SAF, there is a range of options to overcome the challenges of decarbonization. “To achieve the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, there is no silver bullet,” she says.
Azul, in turn, made its first flight with SAF 11 years ago and currently uses it on flights leaving Toulouse, France, Airbus headquarters, to Brazil, when it will receive new aircraft.
Diogo Bertoldi Youssef, Flight Engineering and Dispatch manager at Azul, believes that Brazil could be relevant in the SAF market, considering that the country is the second largest producer of sugar cane, a possible raw material for sustainable fuel .
On the other hand, he considers, before large-scale use there are still many challenges to be overcome in the country, such as the difficulty of national production, forms of distribution in a country on a continental scale and high costs.