The decarbonisation of aviation moved a step closer earlier this month with the opening of the world’s first commercial factory making synthetic kerosene in Germany. The fuel is being advertised as a significant contribution to reducing the climate impact of flying. T&E has welcomed the move, but says managing demand for flying will still be important alongside technological solutions.
Aviation is currently responsible for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. But it has gone largely unregulated in the 24 years since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol left it to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to oversee emissions reductions from planes. ICAO ruled out all measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gases except emissions trading. The EU introduced aviation into its Emissions Trading System in 2012, only for international pressure to force it to limit carbon trading to intra-EU flights only. Since then, much of the focus has moved to technological ways of reducing emissions from flying.
The attraction of synthetic kerosene – often referred to as e-kerosene – is that it is made from carbon captured from the air which, when burned, can be captured again. It can be used as a replacement or supplement to traditional fossil-fuel kerosene, thereby avoiding the need for new engines. But e-kerosene is in very short supply, which explains the high-profile opening by Germany’s environment minister of the new factory in Werlte, a northern German town between Bremen and Groningen.
The company running the plant, Atmosfair, says production will begin early next year. Initially only eight barrels a day will be produced (around 1,300 litres), a tiny amount compared with what was used in international aviation before the pandemic. The price is also expensive, but Atmosfair is banking on fossil fuels becoming more expensive in response to the need to fight climate change. It has at least one buyer for its initial output, Lufthansa, though the price Germany’s main airline is paying has not been revealed.
T&E’s aviation policy officer Matteo Mirolo said: “This plant in Germany is definitely a step in the right direction, but the challenge is to scale-up production from litres to millions of litres. For this to happen, the EU should mandate a bigger share of e-kerosene in jet fuel and ensure this starts from 2027. Only this will give the needed certainty to investors and producers to scale up production.”
The technology used to make e-kerosene is often referred to as “power to liquid” because it uses water and electricity to make hydrogen. The hydrogen is then combined with CO2 to make crude oil, from which e-kerosene is then produced. E-kerosene releases about the same amount of CO2 during flying as is used in the production process, thereby making the fuel carbon-neutral.
Werlte is in a relatively flat area which already has a high level of solar and wind energy generation, and Atmosfair says it will maximise the use of renewable energy in the production of e-kerosene. It also wants much of the CO2 it will use to be a by-product from food waste.
Matteo Mirolo concluded: “The amounts we are talking about from this factory are currently miniscule, so its value lies in showing that the technology works. It’s now up to policymakers to set the legislative framework for production to increase. In T&E’s 2018 Aviation Roadmap, we stressed the need for both tech and demand management, and with the urgency of the climate agenda, demand management has to play a major role at least in the short term.”