Fuelling the future of air travel

Sustainability November 30, 2022


It started on a chilly December day in 1903, when brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright launched their invention into the skies above North Carolina. Fuelled by gasoline – and a stiff nor’wester – the fixed-wing aircraft flew for 59 seconds over a distance of 259 metres in what is believed to be the world’s first controlled, sustained flight.

That remarkable achievement also launched something much more extraordinary – the global aviation industry, which, for more than 100 years, has allowed humans to easily move around the planet for business and leisure.

And it worked well until the words ‘carbon emissions’ and ‘climate change’ began to be mentioned in the same sentence.

Time for action

Fast-forward to 2022, and the aviation industry is responsible for around 2.1% of all human-induced CO2 emissions and 12% of all transport-related emissions. The sector is, in fact, the world’s second-largest source of greenhouse gases.

With air travel tipped to double in the next 15 years, those numbers look set to grow.

“Experts agree that if the world is to meet its climate change goal of keeping global temperature rises to well below two degrees Celsius, then the aviation sector needs to reduce its carbon footprint,” says Julian Hughes, Z’s General Manager, Supply.

Possible solutions to do just that include electric aircraft and hydrogen-fuelled planes, some of which are still in development. But fasten your seat belts, because sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is proving to be a realistic path to decarbonisation – one that’s already safely in use by several global airlines.

What exactly is sustainable aviation fuel?

“Sustainable aviation fuel is a second-generation biofuel used to power aircraft, and has similar properties to conventional jet fuel but with a much smaller carbon footprint,” says Julian. “It can reduce up to 80% of the carbon footprint when compared with fossil-based jet fuel.”

SAF is produced from a variety of sustainable raw materials known as feed-stocks, including waste from the agricultural industry, fats such as waste tallow from meat, fat from the seafood industry or fish waste fat, and certain oils. Even wood-chip residue from the forestry industry and household rubbish can be converted into SAF, thanks to emerging technologies.

“Liquid neat SAF can then be blended up to 50% strength with standard jet fuel to power aircraft, reducing crude oil consumption and producing lower carbon emissions,” Julian adds.

Unlike fossil fuels, which take millions of years to be produced, SAF feed-stocks are produced in much shorter carbon cycles, which can contribute to a more sustainable, circular economy. It also often works with existing infrastructure and aircraft without requiring expensive modifications, meaning it is a ready alternative that can be used now.

A team effort

It’s why Z partnered with Air New Zealand this year to run a trial programme in which they imported approximately 1.2 million litres of SAF – enough to fuel the equivalent of 400 return flights between Auckland and Wellington – by blending it with conventional jet fuel.

“It was a trial to see how we could get SAF to Air New Zealand and deliver it to our customer by using our existing supply chain and partners. There are two options to get SAF to our customers: by building an SAF manufacturing plant in New Zealand, or by importing the product as we do for jet fuel. Building a plant is a significant undertaking and even if we started today, it would be some years before SAF could be produced onshore. This means that importing the product from international refineries is the only viable option in the short term.”

Julian says Z worked with Neste – the world’s biggest producer of SAF – to set up a supply chain to import the product from Belgium.

“It took around six weeks for the SAF to reach us. It was blended with aviation fuel on the journey in what we call ship-to-ship transfer off the Malaysian coast, which can be a relatively high-risk activity. However, we managed this safely and discharged the product at Marsden Point, where it was then  pumped to Wiri and Auckland Airport,” says Julian. “The whole process went smoothly, which was encouraging to see, and recognised the work that was put in place to manage this shipment.”

Following the successful SAF pilot, Z is currently talking to Air New Zealand about where they go from here.

Julian adds, “We support and recognise the need for SAF to become the norm in Aotearoa and are keen to work with partners who share that vision. It’s a key part of Z’s road map to support our customers on their journey to a low-carbon future. We were pleased to work alongside Air New Zealand and Neste to bring this shipment of SAF into the country, because we recognise that collaboration with others will be essential to help us decarbonise at the scale and pace needed to address climate change.”

The price of progress

So far, so positive. The only fly in the ointment is the cost of SAF, which can be three to four times the expense of conventional jet fuel.

“SAF isn’t cheap, so it’s a question of how airlines deal with that. There is a cost to transition to lower-carbon options, but who is that cost borne by? Z wants to be part of that transition and is up for the challenge of making our supply chain as efficient and effective as possible to help make it happen. We all know the impact of carbon emissions and that we need to make changes for the environment, and we’re up for that challenge.”

There’s also another reason for Z to get involved – Aotearoa New Zealand’s tourism industry.

“Our country is in a unique position because we’ve spent the past few decades convincing people from overseas to come and visit. But if, for example, you’re flying from Europe, you can burn a lot of carbon getting here. The challenge for us as a nation is to continue to be an attractive place for overseas visitors, but without the associated carbon guilt. Lower carbon options such as SAF have a huge role to play in that.”