A sustainable aviation industry? These researchers believe it’s possible

The corona pandemic has delivered a severe blow to the airline industry, but expectations are that flying will remain an important part of our mobility, with all the associated negative impacts on the environment. TU/e scientists, together with researchers from TNO, major aviation players Boeing and SkyNRG, and other partners from Spain, Germany and UK, are launching HIGFLY, a new research project that aims to create cost-efficient sustainable aviation fuels (also known as SAFs) from waste biomass. “We want to contribute to an airline industry that emits lower amounts of greenhouse gas into the environment. Aviation fuels made from second generation feedstocks can play a huge role in this”, says TU/e researcher Fernanda Neira d’Angelo, who is the coordinator of the HIGFLY project.

According to the EU, direct CO2 emissions from aviation account for 3 per cent of the EU’s CO2 emissions. Globally, aviation accounts for 2.5 percent of CO2 emissions. This may not seem like much, but consider that if global commercial aviation were a country, it would rank number six in the national CO2 emissions, between Japan and Germany.

The promise of sustainable aviation fuels

To meet the CO2 emission reduction targets set by the aviation sector (50 percent reduction by 2050 compared to 2005 levels), the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) needs to increase sharply. Although some airlines, including the Dutch flagship KLM, have been experimenting with SAFs, current global consumption is still less than 0.5 per cent of the overall aviation fuel consumption.

While demand for SAFs is expected to increase over the next decade, their uptake is held back by cost as the price of SAFs is approximately two to five times that of conventional aviation fuel.

Another crucial aspect is the sustainability of the feedstocks used, to guarantee that the net impact of using sustainable aviation fuels is far less negative than with fossil fuels. It is key to use resources that do not sacrifice food security, environment or biodiversity.

Researcher and project coordinator Fernanda Neira d'Angelo
Researcher and project coordinator Fernanda Neira d’Angelo

HIGFLY

The HIGFLY project, a collaboration between TU/e, TNO, SkyNRG, Boeing, and five more partners from Spain, Germany, and the UK aims to change all that. This consortium made up of academia, research institutes, and industry will develop new and more efficient technologies to produce advanced sustainable aviation fuels using low-cost and abundant second-generation (i.e. non-food) biomass from a broad feedstock pool, such as residues from forestry and farming.

The production of SAFs from biomass involves a reactor where the biomaterial is transformed into molecules that can be used as a precursor for sustainable jet fuel, using novel catalysts and solvents. This product is then separated using ceramic membranes, saving around 35 per cent of the energy during the most energy consuming steps of the process.

According to TU/e researcher and project coordinator Fernanda Neira D’Angelo, the approach taken by HIGFLY is unique. “The technology we are proposing is different than that used by others to produce SAFs. We use furanics as a key precursor in the fuel production process. Combined with our novel catalysts, solvents, and membranes, this promises to make the HIGFLY process not only very efficient, but it also has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions far more effectively than other approaches, with expectations of a decrease in the range of 70 to 90 percent.”

EU funded

HIGFLY has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (under grant agreement N°101006618). Of the total 4 million euro EU grant, one million euro will be used to support TU/e in technology development. The project will run for a total of four years and the first preliminary results are expected in 2022.

Besides TU/e, TNO, SkyNRG and Boeing, the HIGFLY consortium brings together the following organizations and companies: Agencia Estatal Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC-ITQ), Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung, Johnson Matthey, Institut für Energie- und Umweltforschung (ifeu), and KNEIA.

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