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Powering aviation’s net-zero future with sustainable aviation fuel and efficient jet engine

Among the multiple solutions our industry is working on, two of the most promising avenues are the drive towards more efficient aircraft engines and increasing the adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF).

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SAF’s main challenge is that its current production is only able to serve a minute fraction of global jet fuel demand, with its supply accounting for less than 0.1% of the global fuel mix.

By Ashmita Sethi,

In tandem to post-pandemic recovery, the aviation industry in India and around the world has again begun to expand at a rapid pace. For instance, airlines in India recently crossed 400,000 passengers a day, which is about 95.5% of pre-COVID daily domestic air passenger traffic. However, the pandemic years have also helped focus the world to take a more serious look at climate change. This has been a key motivation for the aviation industry to explore strategic avenues of technology-driven, sustainable, environment-friendly growth. Currently, the aviation industry is responsible for 2.4 per cent of global CO2 emissions. This figure is expected to rise further as other sectors of our economies reduce their footprint, and as the aviation industry grows. Therefore, securing a more sustainable future for the whole aerospace industry is today our most important priority.                                      

However, contrary to popular belief, sustainable flying is not a new phenomenon for the airline industry. The aerospace industry and its various allied stakeholders have always strived to create technology and operational innovations that maximize energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions. What is good for business is also good for the environment.

Among the multiple solutions our industry is working on, two of the most promising avenues are the drive towards more efficient aircraft engines and increasing the adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). As the general consensus is that these two are crucial solutions that merit a bit more attention as efficient engines and the SAFs do not require major modifications to aircraft and can be safely applied to more than 25,000 aircraft in service today around the world.    

SAFs and efficient jet engines: Powering sustainable flights of the future

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is a “drop in” solution, meaning they do not require any major modifications to aircraft or fueling infrastructure. Manufactured from sustainable, non-fossil-based feedstocks, such as used cooking oil, they have the potential to reduce lifecycle emissions by up to 80% as compared to standard jet fuel. Yet, airlines are restrained to widely adopt it due to its high cost compared to conventional Jet A kerosene.  

SAF’s main challenge is that its current production is only able to serve a minute fraction of global jet fuel demand, with its supply accounting for less than 0.1% of the global fuel mix. It is two to five times more expensive than conventional jet fuel today. Therefore, there is a need for more investment from government and industry stakeholders to enhance its production infrastructure and make SAF a competitive solution for airlines in the near and medium-term. This will allow airlines with mature aircraft to continue operating their fleets well into the future, while reducing the carbon footprint of those mature fleets.        

Another way of reducing carbon emissions is through adoption of efficient jet engines. Our most recent generation of jet engines, with its geared turbofan technology, are delivering 16-20 percent better fuel efficiency than their predecessors. With this, they are effectively saving millions of tons of CO2 in their lifetimes. Airlines in growing markets like India have already added hundreds of these advanced aircraft to their fleets.  In the near future, it is expected that other emerging markets will also follow the same route. As 80 percent of aircraft generated CO2 emissions come from flights of more than 1,500km which will continue to rely on traditional gas turbine propulsion technology, we need to further strengthen this technology and encourage quicker adoption of these efficient engines by airline operators.

It should be further noted that adoption of such green technologies is not only good for the environment, but also makes good business sense. Burning less fuel while flying the same or longer routes unlocks the potential of ‘more for less’ profit for airlines and creates opportunities for new service. Efficient engines are a key variable in ensuring that airlines generate more revenue per kilometer flown, without having to reduce payload capacity and destination choices. The economic constraints caused due to the pandemic can be in part overcome by the adoption of green technologies as they mature in the near future.  

Where does India’s aviation industry stand on its sustainable goals?    

Over the last few years, India’s aviation industry has bravely taken up to the challenge of reducing its carbon emissions and has shown a pioneer commitment towards sustainable goals. Moreover, India has also ensured that their position on mechanisms such as the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) continue to be just, equitable and inclusive.

In fact, India was one of the early adopters of geared turbofan technology engines and has already inducted hundreds of efficient aircraft into its fleet. As the government’s regional connectivity scheme (RCS) UDAN is expanding last mile air connectivity in the country, Indian operators will require more such efficient aircraft to drive green and affordable air travel. This is where quicker adoption of efficient engines and SAFs will expedite RCS and India’s overall aerospace growth, by increasing cost effectiveness and competitiveness.       

Today, the subject of SAFs is also an active point of discussion in India. Recently, a leading Indian airline took delivery of an aircraft fueled by SAF. Moreover, as India is home to a large agrarian sector, large amounts of agro waste effectively reduce the issue of feedstock availability for SAF production.  This puts India in an advantageous position as a production hub for SAF in large volumes and makes it a competitive solution provider in the region.   

Other sectors of the industry are also actively coming up with innovative solutions to reduce carbon emission. Today, airports are using TaxiBot services to tow an aircraft to the take off point and return it to the terminal gate after landing. Indeed, an innovative way to save millions of liters of fuel and avoid tons of carbon emission.    

These emerging best practices show that India is on the right track and is taking timely actions to meet its green target. These practices are also showing the way forward for other aviation industries to meet their sustainable goals. As India builds up momentum by adopting more efficient engines and SAFs, it will create a roadmap for other emerging technologies like hybrid-electric and Hydrogen-fueled aircraft for our long-term sustainable mission.   

(Author is President and Country Head, Pratt & Whitney India. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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