Scientists Say We Can Reduce Emissions by 68%. With Plant-Based Jet Fuel?

It's 'a win-win for the aviation industry'.
Chris Young

The aviation industry accounts for approximately 2 percent of all global carbon emissions, prompting scientists to increasingly look for sustainable alternatives. One of the latest attempts comes from researchers at the University of Georgia who developed a fuel using a type of mustard plant. The new fuel has the capacity to reduce carbon emissions by up to 68 percent, a press statement reveals.

Specifically, the team set out to estimate the break-even price and life cycle carbon emissions of a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) derived from the oil of Brassica carinata, a non-edible oilseed crop also coloquially referred to as the Ethiopian mustard. Their study was published in GCB Bioenergy. It is the latest in a growing number of SAF studies aimed at providing a less damaging alternative to aviation fuel. In February, for example, Rolls-Royce conducted its first tests of a 100 percent sustainable fuel in a business jet engine.

"Carinata-based SAF could help reduce the carbon footprint of the aviation sector while creating economic opportunities and improving the flow of ecosystem services across the southern region," said Puneet Dwivedi, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who led the study. 

'A win-win for the aviation industry'

The new University of Georgia study comes shortly after President Joe Biden proposed a sustainable fuel tax credit as part of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge. With his new proposal, President Biden set a goal for the aviation industry to reduce its emissions by 20 percent by 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The tax credit requires any fuel to achieve a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions, which the University of Georgia's sustainable aviation fuel exceeds. 

What's more, the price of producing the carinata-derived SAF is estimated to cost between $0.12 and $1.28 per liter, which is lower than petroleum-based aviation fuel's current price of $0.50 liters when the new tax incentives are applied. Carinata can also be grown in the "off" season, meaning that it can be grown on land that would likely otherwise lie fallow. "Carinata has the potential to be a win-win situation for our rural areas, the aviation industry, and most importantly, climate change," Dwivedi said.

The University of Georgia's carinata-derived fuel study is one of several recent projects aiming to reduce aviation emissions. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), for example, announced a commitment this month to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, while Germany opened the world's first synthetic kerosene production plant with a view to testing the feasibility and scalability of the fuel in a bid to fight climate change by reducing the impact of global air travel on our environment.

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