A future with fewer gas-powered cars and SUVs and a push for cleaning up greenhouse gas emissions from all modes of transportation is behind a fresh use for ethanol — converting this plant-based fossil-fuel alternative to create sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
on Monday, announced a new ethanol-to-jet fuel (ETJ) processing technology, an answer, the company says, to scarcer supplies of the vegetable oils, animal fats and waste oils that historically have been burned as fuel to replace a sliver of petroleum-based jet fuel
Demand for SAF continues to grow, prompting Honeywell to develop its high-performance proprietary chemical catalysts and heat management capabilities that the company says create a cost-effective, lower carbon-intensity aviation fuel and builds on the Ecofining products the company first created to carve out its place among small-but-expanding sustainable aviation fuels.
The new formula will convert corn-based
cellulosic, or sugar-based ethanol into SAF. And depending on the type of ethanol feedstock used, jet fuel produced from Honeywell’s ETJ process can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80% on a total lifecycle basis, compared to petroleum-based jet fuel, it says.
Sustainable fuels made up less than 0.1% of the 96 billion gallons of total global commercial aviation fuel consumption in 2019. But it’s a market with upside, particularly as increased regulatory and consumer pressure to fly with less of an impact on climate change is only going to expand this market.
SAFs, including those tapping ethanol, are also typically seen as a companion solution to be used in combination with other emissions-cutting efforts. A 2021 life-cycle analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory has found that ETJ, if used with carbon capture, utilization and sequestration (CCUS), which grabs emissions from the air after combustion and is a method pushed by the traditional fuels industries — as well as sticking with feedstock derived from smart farming practices that reduce the environmental footprint of growing the corn — can result in negative GHG emissions compared to petroleum-based jet fuel.
“Honeywell’s ethanol to jet process, when used as a standalone or when coupled with Honeywell carbon capture technology, provides a pathway to lower carbon-intensity SAF,” said Barry Glickman, vice president and general manager, Honeywell Sustainable Technology Solutions.
Honeywell also knows it will have to help producers reach scalability faster if alternatives stand a chance at competing with traditional jet fuel sooner than later.
SAF plants utilizing Honeywell’s technology can be modularized off-site enabling lower installed costs and faster, less labor-intensive installation compared to job site construction, the company says. By utilizing Honeywell’s ETJ technology and an integrated, modular construction approach, producers can build new SAF capacity more than a year faster than is possible with traditional construction approaches.
Retrofitting could help push the oil and gas industry itself deeper into the market for fossil-fuel alternatives, where many big names
in the oil patch have already diversified. For instance, petroleum refiners and transportation fuel producers can also benefit from this ETJ design to convert current or idle facilities into SAF production plants, thereby maximizing use of existing sites for SAF production to meet the growing market demand, Honeywell says.
As for the feedstock, in this case, ethanol, executives at Honeywell see potential in diverting current ethanol capacity into use for commercial and cargo flights.
“In the U.S., there’s over a million barrels a day of ethanol produced to blend with gasoline, mostly from corn, although there is some from sugar cane and other sources. We see gasoline demand declining ultimately and the capacity for ethanol that exists today looking for a new home,” Kevin O’Neil, senior business leader, renewable fuels, at Honeywell Sustainable Technology Solutions, told MarketWatch. “We do see it as a plentiful material in the U.S. especially. Brazil makes a lot of ethanol as well.”
Demand will also be driven by a government push toward cutting emissions across industries.
In 2021, the Biden administration laid down an aviation industry challenge to generate at least 3 billion gallons of SAF by 2030 to reduce emissions from this sector by 20% and enough SAF to meet 100% of U.S. aviation fuel demand by 2050.
That challange was further supported in part with provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act, passed this summer. In the IRA, fuel blenders are granted a tax credit between $1.25 and $1.75 per gallon of SAF if they can produce a greater than 50% reduction in GHG emissions running from Jan. 1, 2023 through Dec. 31, 2024. In addition, the law creates a new clean fuels production tax credit between $0.35 and $1.75 per gallon for routes with greater than 50% reduction in GHG emissions running from Jan. 1, 2025 through Dec 31, 2027.
Demand for SAF extends beyond the U.S. of course. In the European Union, the aim is to increase the share of sustainable fuels at the bloc’s airports from a minimum of 2% in 2025 to at least 63% by 2050. and to phase out of free emission allowances for aviation.
The industry itself has targted 2050. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) approved a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The IATA projects 23 billion liters (6 billion gallons) of SAF will be needed by 2030, accounting for 5.2% of the total fuel requirement. By 2050, SAF production will need to hit 449 billion liters (119 billion gallons), about 65% of the total fuel needed to keep up with transport demand. These and other mandates accelerate the need for alternative SAF feedstocks to meet demand, IATA predicts.
Honeywell would not say if specific passenger carriers or cargo interests were already on board. But the company did point to its previously announced pact with United Airlines.
In 2021, United
agreed to purchase 1.5 billion gallons of SAF over 20 years, which at the time was one and a half times the size of the rest of the world’s airlines’ publicly announced SAF commitments combined.
Honeywell shares are down 17% in the year to date. The S&P 500
is down 23% over the same span.