Rising stars are coming together as constellations, the stars are aligning and making magical things happen – today we explore 9 of those constellations building around Sustainable Aviation Fuels. Some of them are young protostars in the earliest stage of stellar evolution, while others are like the Earth’s sun, a main-sequence mid-size star, and a few are superstars like, well, a supernova of course.
There’s also a slew of interesting feedstocks – Velocys’ and Fulcrum’s municipal solid waste, Gevo and Praj’s rice straw, LanzaTech’s carbon, Neste’s plant oils and waste oils, RedRock’s forestry waste, and more. The feedstocks are there. The technologies are there. The partnerships are there. The magic is there.
The Major Constellations
There are so many companies out there today working on making biojet fuel, but here are some key rising constellations with supplier and customer groups that are providing commercial sustainable aviation fuels or headed to commercial scale shortly – so let’s look to the skies with hope, excitement, anticipation, and even better, a sprinkle of earth-based reality.
Velocys, Shell, British Airways. Biofuels is often working in a world of firsts and this constellation is no different. British Airways, Shell and Velocys is building the Europe’s first waste-to-energy facility, taking trash and converting it to wonderful, glorious biojet fuel. Just a week ago came news that things are moving along with the application for planning permission to build the aviation biofuel production facility being submitted for approval in the UK, with half a million metric tons of MSW expected to be used as feedstock annually at the proposed site. Last month, Velocys announced that British Airways and Shell invested nearly nearly £3 million ($3.6 million) in the company so it’s no surprise that things are moving forward with this commercial scale project for a waste-to-jet plant. Region: EU
Gevo, Virgin, LanzaJet. In June, Virgin Australia Airlines racked up 1 million kilometers on aviation biofuel with 700 flights flown on a blend since it started running its trial on commercial flights last fall. The trial is in partnership between the airline, Gevo, the government of Queensland, Brisbane Airport where Virgin Australia has its hub, and supply chain partners Caltex and DB Schenker. Just a few weeks ago, Gevo announced that it entered into a partnership agreement with Air TOTAL to produce and supply sustainable aviation fuel (“SAF”) for use and distribution in France and other parts of Europe. Gevo also signed a licensing agreement with India-based Praj earlier this summer for biobutanol biocatalyst technology and Gevo CEO Patrick Gruber noted that “we believe this second-generation technology combination has great potential to address India’s rice straw burning problem and related air pollution, while generating low-carbon hydrocarbons for jet fuel and gasoline.”
As for LanzaTech, Virgin Atlantic started working with them back in 2011, produced their first 1,500 gallons of biofuel in 2016, which seems eons ago, and had their first biofuel flight from Orlando to London Gatwick with LanzaTech biofuel in September 2018. The UK’s largest bank, HSBC has been involved, as has Boeing and other technical partners. LanzaTech is expanding the constellation a bit now with news earlier this summer of their offtake agreement for SAF with All Nippon Airways in Japan. Region: EU, US, India.
Fulcrum, Waste Management, United Airlines, Cathay, Air BP. Fulcrum is certainly getting a lot of attention with their $1 billion valuation in their latest capital raise, and all that from a 10 million-gallon first commercial facility in Nevada that’s not completed yet. It’s definitely a class operation in terms of assembling and managing partners and being focused on developing solutions. They are more of a technology integrator than a developer and have swapped several technologies in and out. The carbon cores from using municipal solid waste are awesome, it’s been more of an issue of learning to handle to feedstock and homogenize it, and getting a technology set that can work with MSW day in and day out at rapid rates of production and high levels of uptime. Regions: US for now.
SkyNRG, KLM, SHV Energy. Shell Aviation, Sodra. SkyNRG is building a plant in Rotterdam with KLM and SHV as partners, scheduled to be online in the next three years. Sodra is a forestry company of note in Scandinavia that is closely allied in this constellation. Region: EU.
JetBlue, SG Preston, Airbus. About three years ago, JetBlue and biofuels producer SG Preston signed a 10-year biofuel purchase agreement for 33 million gallons per year of SAF and just last year, JetBlue received several Airbus planes running on a 15.5% biofuel blend. SG Preston must be getting ready to grow some more as it is the first company to announce its interest in potentially buying the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, which was damaged in a fire in June. S.G. Preston would convert the refinery and 1,300 acres to produce renewable diesel, marine diesel, and jet fuel, mostly from waste fats and oils as the feedstock. Region: US
Neste, Air BP, Alaska et al. We’d have to consider Neste as the far-and-away leader to date. Significant partners, they supply a lot of the fuel that’s going around. They have a working technology. The issue has been more the cost and availability of feedstock, since they use mostly plant oils and waste oils. They’ve moved away completely from palm oil in aviation fuels. Consider this the mirror of Fulcrum in some ways — Neste chose the easier technology path and the tougher long-term feedstock path, while Fulcrum chose the easier long-term, feedstock supply path and a resulting higher degree of difficulty in technology. Region: EU, and Singapore.
Velocys, British Airways. Velocys has been integral as a technology supplier to RedRock and they’ve reached commercial scale at ENVIA. Now, they’ve switched to a Build Own Operate model in partnership with BA and replacing Solena which had been BA’s original technology integration partner. It’s MSW based in conception, and Velocys provides the back-end conversion to fuels once the feedstock is gasified into a manageable syngas stream. Region: EU.
World Energy, Honeywell, Word Fuel Services, US Navy et al. Next to Neste, we’d consider these the market leaders and, like Neste, this constellation is focused on plant oils and waste fats oils and greases. Certainly, they’ve been more focused on novel feedstocks like camelina than Neste. The technology works, at scale, and has delivered large volumes of mostly diesel, some jet to the U.S. Navy. So, it’s proven — the question being how much appetite do they have to producer jet as opposed to diesel. They’re in the midst of a massive scale up from 50 to 300 million gallons at their Paramount, California refinery complex. Like REG, they are hampered long-term by their need for biodiesel tax credits to help keep their overall company (which is big on biodiesel) operating smoothly and having the cash flow to support expansion and investment. They have a very entrepreneurial, very “get it done” team. Long term, like Neste, they are going to have more trouble sourcing affordable low carbon feedstock than those who selected a tougher technology pathway. It’s possible they are looking into forest residues as a future feedstock – which poses an aggregation challenge and a technology handling challenge but certainly would solve their feedstock supply issues. Region: US.
RedRock, FedEx, Southwest Airlines. This Oregon first commercial is expected in the business model to have more plants on a Build Own Operate basis. Right now, our understanding is that there’s a technology problem that the U.S. Department of Energy is aiming to help fix. This one uses forestry waste from the start, so it does not have the long-term feedstock issues, it is sustainable, affordable, reliable and available, or SARA as we say around here. But they’ve taken on those tougher technology handling issues right up front. Region: US.
Other Constellations to Watch Closely
There are quite a number of groups more at the early-stage R&D — Vertimass, SBI, Corbus, Mercurius, Euglena, etc. that could be a Digest topic another day. But there are three groups that are more seriously assembling themselves and what is so attractive is not so much the technologies themselves but the regional groupings.
REG, Phillips 66, Port of Seattle, and a 13-airline group out of SEA. It’s primarily renewable diesel in focus because of the economics of low carbon credits in California, but the Port has striking ambitions and REG has a project with Phillips in development in Washington state (250 million gallons) and they also are expanding capacity at the 73 million-gallon Geismar (Louisiana) facility. Region: US.
Agrisoma, ARA, University of Florida. ARA is a technology that’s going through an extended certification period because it enables 100% replacement of fuel, instead of 50/50 or lesser blends, so this one has taken longer but keep a sharp eye on it, and the SPARC consortium out of Florida which includes Agrisoma as a carinata feedstock partner. Region: US.
Byogy, Virgin Australia, Mercurius, Northern Oil. Queensland has shown a remarkable commitment to developing sustainable aviation fuels via a hub strategy and has been attracting earlier-stage partners and technologies of great interest. Bagasse as a jet fuel feedstock is certainly interesting and there’s definitely plenty of it in Queensland and opportunities to grow plenty more in the northwest of the state. It would be more exciting if there was a technology partner in here that was farther along on demonstrating an integrated solution rather than developing new technologies and feedstocks (such as Byogy and Mercurius), but as far as regions go, this is one to watch. Region: Asia-Pac.