French entrepreneurs look to agriculture and forestry for the future of aviation fuel
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Sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, is airplane fuel made from renewable sources like reused cooking oil. Nearly half a million flights have used this fuel mixed with regular petroleum-based kerosene — almost all of them in Europe.
Now, the French say they have produced the second generation of this fuel, made from plant sugar.
Marc Delcourt, co-founder and CEO of Global Bioenergies, stood near a beet sugar factory and a small adjacent unit. “This is the unit we built this year,” he said.
The facility uses bacteria to produce a hydrocarbon — fuel, in other words — from sugar.
In the Champagne region of France, they grow grapes, of course, but also sugar beets. Lots of them. Napoleon ordered the mass planting of sugar beets when a British naval blockade stopped sugar supplies from the Caribbean. Some 200 years later, France is still the largest producer of sugar beets in Europe.
“We have a process to convert sugar, whatever it is. Can be sugar beet, sugar cane, sugar from starch — so corn or wheat — or even sugar from agricultural leftovers,” Delcourt said. Agricultural leftovers such as straw or forestry leftovers like sawmill wood chips.
While plants grow, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Delcourt explained — helping limit the effects of climate change. But does this new fuel made from plants do the job?
Well, a plane flew a test flight from Germany to France with only this new aviation fuel in the tank and arrived safe and sound.
The market opportunity is significant, according to John Plaza, CEO of the American arm of SkyNRG, a Dutch firm moving into SAF production.
“We’re anticipating huge demand due to both policy in the [European Union] and the U.S., as well as the aviation industry’s goal to be [carbon] net zero by 2050,” Plaza said.
Global Bioenergies said it plans to build a plant producing 30,000 tons of aviation fuel from timber waste in 2027.
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