What role will SAF play in aviation’s decarbonization? | Interview

It’s a chilly winter morning in central London and I’ve headed down to Westminster for the Airlines 2021 Conference where I had the opportunity to bump into friends old and new from across the sector, some for the first time in two years. 

While we heard in the panel discussions how COVID-19 continues to cause severe challenges for the sector, I had the chance to join some more optimistic conversations on the future outlook, particularly over a chat on sustainability with Neville Hargreaves, VP for Waste to Fuels with the sustainable fuels technology company, Velocys. 

The UK-based company has made headlines over the past few months after signing agreements with a number of major airlines and it’s also gained publicity over its plans for the first sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) plant in the UK. I wanted to ask Neville more about the business, what role he thinks SAF will play in aviation’s decarbonization journey, and how optimistic he is about future progress.

Neville Hargreaves, VP for Waste to Fuels at Velocys

So, Neville, tell us about Velocys, what does it do and what is your role in the business?

We’re a sustainable fuels technology company that sprang out of two parallel developments – one from Oxford University and one in chemical reactor design from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the US. We began to focus around that time on the conversion of hydrocarbons and we’re now developing projects of our own to show that complete conversion from solid feedstocks to finished fuels actually works.

And tell us about you, what made you want to get involved in the industry?

Well, I’ve got an energy industry background. I’m a PhD chemist and worked for Exxon…then I guess I ‘got the clean energy bug’ about 15 years ago. I joined Velocys because I wanted to help transform energy use. 

So, to focus on SAF, what role do you see this technology playing in the industry’s decarbonization journey?

There’s pretty much a complete consensus that more than half the job of decarbonizing is going to be down to SAF. Other propulsion technologies don’t really serve long-haul and it’s going to take them a long time to be in the market, whereas SAF is a drop-in fuel that can be used immediately. 

We’ve got to achieve a lot of decarbonization in the next few years otherwise we’re not going to get to net zero by 2050.

It really is the combination of these two pressures – the need for action now and the fact that 70%+ CO2 comes from medium and long-haul flights – that makes SAF absolutely critical.

SAF has been challenged by some critics about how sustainable it actually is, for example talking about the use of different feedstocks with crops and associated biodiversity issues. How would you respond to those challenges?

I think it’s the responsibility of all those who produce SAF to show that their feedstock is sustainable

That’s why we have things like the Roundtable for Sustainable Biomaterials which assess the supply chain and confirm your approach meets those ambitions. 

It’s worth reflecting on the three generations of SAF that we see coming through:

I) Oil, either vegetable or used cooking oil – that’s the cheapest way of making SAF but also with the biggest feedstock limitation and the biggest risk of cannibalising feedstocks going into road transport, so I think that’s a significant issue. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it, but we need the other generations as well.

II) Any solid carbon feedstock ꟷ so municipal solid waste is what my project focuses on but also forestry waste and, yes, crops do play a part. There’s much bigger potential in the volume than vegetable oils but it’s a bigger capital requirement. 

III) Using carbon from the atmosphere – that has no immediate carbon feedstock problem but it does mean you need a very big supply of renewable energy and it’s also very expensive. We shouldn’t think of that as the easy answer.

It’s all three of these generations that are going to be necessary.

Which project are you most excited about?

We at Velocys have these two reference projects. One is in the US, using forestry wastes. To your point on sustainability, this is not cutting down trees, this is using the parts you don’t use for timber. And this is very exciting. Just a couple of weeks ago we signed agreements to sell the SAF from that project to IAG and Southwest Airlines (LUV). 

I’m also very excited about my project in the UK. Here, we’re intending to take municipal solid waste and commercial and industrial waste which would otherwise go to landfill or incineration and convert that into SAF. Everyone sees why that’s a great thing, you’ve got this horrible waste that you’ve got to get rid of and we turn it into something desperately needed.

What kind of examples of waste are we talking about? Is it old coffee cups?

It’s pretty much everything containing carbon. Think about what’s in your bin, it’s packaging, textiles, food, cardboard, there’s a whole range of carbon-containing material. We will take that black bag as it is, with whatever is in it, separate out the bits you can’t use and what needs to be recycled – metals, glass, stones. And then we essentially heat it all up in a controlled atmosphere, it releases the carbon and the hydrogen and we then use Velocys’ technology to convert it into fuels.

That’s incredibly exciting!

If you were going to have one specific ask of the UK Government to support upscaling, what would it be?

You’ve got to think back to how did the offshore wind industry get established in the UK? What really made that take off was Contracts for Difference. What that means is that government guarantees a certain price to produce that product and that contract is the basis for investment, or the basis on which investors will lend money to producers in order to build a plant. I think that’s exactly what we need in the fuels industry in the UK as well.

At COP26, we saw a commitment from the international aviation climate coalition pledging to net zero by 2050. Are you optimistic about that target?

Yes, I am. I think the ICAO assembly in 2022 will be a critical step for the whole industry and the fact that we’re talking about it a year in advance (you heard that on the panel this morning) means there’s a lot of work recognising how critical that agreement is. It’s no longer in dispute that we have to do this and achieve that common goal across countries because aviation is an international business. It’s not fair or realistic to expect one airline or country to do all of the work itself. 

Reflecting on some comments earlier from a panel in the conference, it was suggested that there’s a potential gap in how consumers engage with industry’s story on sustainability. Do you think there’s more work to do in that area?

I do. This is not awfully easy. We’re still burning carbon fuel in the aircraft, but it’s all about the source of the carbon and also because we can do carbon capture and storage in parallel, it’s not that easy to communicate that story. I and others have much to learn about how we can tell that story effectively.

I suppose it’s not quite as easy a story compared to the road transport transition, is it? I mean, people know what fuel they’re putting in their car or if they’re driving electric.

Actually, the same is true in road transport, I was talking to a friend the other day about how does E10 help the environment? There’s a lot of talk about EVs (I own one myself), but the biggest decarbonization in the road industry so far is achieved through fuels – ethanol, biodiesel. They don’t look as different as an electric solution but they are as important.

I think you might be right. I’m not sure many consumers will know what E10 is. So, final question, will we get to fly on a SAF plane by next Christmas?

You could certainly fly with up to 50% SAF. 100% SAF has been done already but that is not approved for commercial flight yet. But I’m sure if you go speak to Rolls Royce or Airbus they can get you on a flight!

I’ll hold you to it. Thanks very much for your time, Neville.

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