LanzaTech is on track to launch the world’s first commercial-scale plant to make sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from waste gases. With about $31M in funding from the UK Department for Transport, project DRAGON (aka Decarbonizing and Reimagining Aviation for the Goal Of Netzero) will leverage steel mill emissions from a plant in South Wales, expected to be operational in 2026. A precommercial facility is projected to launch in the U.S. in Georgia in 2023 that will make SAF from forestry residue rather than steel emissions, and it will be smaller scale.
The U.S. plant, funded by the Department of Energy, will produce about 10M gallons a year while the South Wales plant will make about 30M gallons annually.
The approach involves two steps: converting waste gases to ethanol; then an ethanol-to-jet conversion process, which is done by partner, LanZaJet. What ultimately comes from this work is a synthetic kerosene to blend with diesel.
The technology has been proven and approved for commercial use. But building large plants takes time and money, says Freya Burton, chief Sustainability officer, LanzaTech.
The team spent 10 years doing preliminary work, testing the fuel, reporting to regulators to ensure it is safe and meets all specifications, and getting through the ASTM certification process.
Meanwhile, as policies around SAF push forward, the clock is ticking to bring more plants up from the ground.
“To get to where we need to go in the next 10 years, we need to be making many billions of gallons, and we make millions of gallons today. We need all the technologies we can develop, and we need abundant, low-cost feedstocks. That’s why we should focus on waste-based feedstocks. There’s definitely enough of it, especially if we focus on waste-based fuels,” Burton says.
Ethanol can be made from many waste streams. Industrial emissions, municipal solid waste (MSW), and agricultural waste in particular are among those that are being looked at and found to work.
The use of MSW has been demonstrated at scale in Japan. Manufacturing emissions have been used in China. And in Canada LanZaTech is converting forestry waste to ethanol.
“So, we’ve shown it’s possible to use these feedstocks for SAF. What we are working on now is scaling the conversion of ethanol to jet fuel,” Burton says.
The company’s competitors typically use thermochemical processes such as Fischer–Tropsch, but while they may be able to use waste, the material has to be cleaned and sorted, and it’s an expensive process.
LanZaTech’s method, leveraging living organisms to turn waste into products, does not require purification and is cheaper Burton says. She and the team she works with see this biological approach as using nature to heal nature.
“Nature does some amazing things, so why not leverage it to solve some ultimate problems we have? We will use the trash society is leaving behind to make useful products rather than take more fossil fuel out of the ground.”
The SAF is expected to achieve about a 70 percent-plus reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over fossil fuel. And it should reduce particulate emissions by over 95 percent, based on findings of research flights.
SAF in general has greater energy density than conventional diesel jet fuel. Burton could not say what this attribute would translate to in terms of mileage, but the more energy the less fuel required.
Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech CEO, has been working on SAF technology since its infancy.
“When I first started on this journey, people thought I was crazy. It’s so exciting to see the incredible progress that has been made across the sector since the first flight back in 2008.
“There is still much to be done, however, and having taken part in those first SAF flights, I still see that we need to get more volumes into the fuel pool,” she says.
The push moving forward is in getting infrastructure in place to support the market for the SAF technologies in play today.
International Airlines Group (IAG) has committed $865 million in SAF purchases and investments to date, including in support of LanZaTech/LanZaJet’s ethanol-to-jet-fuel work.
SAF is the only available solution that can start to materially reduce emissions on the way to net zero emissions by 2050 [a committed goal of multiple countries]. And it’s the only viable solution to decarbonize medium- and long-haul flying, which represents over 70 percent of aviation’s emissions, contends Jonathon Counsell, group head of Sustainability at International Airlines Group.
“Alcohol to jet was one of the early technologies to be approved for aviation, and we are excited about the scale that we could reach with this pathway … LanzaJet/LanZaTech is a leader in this area, and will deliver a world’s first – the first commercial scale alcohol-to-jet plant,” Counsell says.
What lies ahead for the industry at large? The first flight to run on 100 percent aviation fuel is slated to take off in 2023. The policy push for more SAF gains traction and, with that, comes the anticipation of more opportunities.
In the U.S. the Biden administration has set a goal of producing 3 billion gallons of SAF by 2030. Burton is especially watching what’s happening with the Inflation Reduction Act’s (IRA) expansion of the Biomass-based Diesel Blenders Tax Credit (BTC) as well as increasing incentives for renewable fuels, to soon be available through the act, including for SAF.
The European Union has mandated that 10 percent of aviation fuel be SAF by 2030 and is looking at more feedstocks to meet near-future demand. The Norwegian government in particular is requiring that the fuel come from wastes and residues.
Industry is hoping policies like these will propel more movement to build on progress made so far. And more folks are advocating for these policies to enable leverage of waste to get there.
“The technologies are here. We have ways to take wastes as a feedstock, to support the scale we need without impacting biodiversity or land use change. We must keep the momentum going and get steel in the ground and start making significantly more gallons of SAF,” Holmgren says.