Lufthansa takes first steps towards non-fossil kerosene

One of Europe’s leading airlines has announced it is buying synthetic aviation fuel as a way of reducing its carbon impact. Lufthansa wants 5% of the fuel it uses at Hamburg airport to be almost zero-carbon over the next five years. It plans to use a near emissions-free alternative to kerosene produced with currently unclaimed renewable electricity from a local windfarm. T&E welcomed the initiative which will hopefully spur similar moves by governments and others in the aviation industry towards low and zero-carbon fuels.

Aviation is responsible for 5% of global warming, and its rapid growth puts it on track to consume a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050. Synthetic forms of kerosene offer considerable potential to reduce CO2 emissions provided they are produced from additional renewable energy. They potentially offer the most most promising currently available way to make substantial reductions in aviation’s carbon footprint.

Lufthansa already buys 350,000 tonnes of conventional (fossil) kerosene a year from a refinery in Heide on the German coast north-west of Hamburg. It has now launched a ‘five in five’ project to make 5% of the kerosene it uses at Hamburg airport synthetic (non-fossil) within five years. Synthetic kerosene, which is almost zero-carbon, is sometimes known as ‘electrofuel’, as the process that makes it involves electrolysis splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen and then combining with CO2.

The contract between Lufthansa and the Heide refinery is said to draw on excess wind energy produced on the North Sea coast at times when the electricty generated cannot be used by electricity grids. The refinery deals with 4.5 million tonnes of crude oil each year, producing petrol, diesel and fossil kerosene. Together with researchers at the University of Bremen, the refinery hopes this project will be the start of a synthetic kerosene production line.

The Lufthansa initiative is one of the first in the world to adopt low-carbon electrofuels. Last October, T&E produced a report, Roadmap to decarbonising European aviation, which looked at the level of ambition required to reduce aviation’s emissions to near zero by 2050. It found that converting all aviation fuel demand to non-fossil kerosene would cost 58% per ticket more than current prices, or 23% more compared with fossil kerosene being properly taxed. Additional cost reductions may be possible with further technological developments. However, the non-CO2 effects of aviation – NOx emissions at altitude, contrails, cirrus cloud formation, soot – would still need to be addressed.

T&E’s aviation manager Andrew Murphy said: ‘Lufthansa’s move could be the beginning of a new direction for Europe’s airlines. Zero emission fuels are key to addressing aviation’s runaway emissions and European governments need to help industrialise these processes to deliver economies of scale. In doing so it is important that governments agree the right sustainability safeguards that ensure that the electricity used comes from additional sources of renewable electricity and that the CO2 is sourced from direct air capture.’