Waste to Aviation Fuel - Time for Take-off?
Jan 09, 2020
For some years now, British Airways has been involved in plans to develop a large-scale waste to aviation fuel facility in the UK. While a previous project didn’t quite achieve take-off, the airline has now teamed up Altalto Immingham, a subsidiary of Velocys, and Shell on a proposal for a plant that will turn 500,000 tonnes per year of MSW into jet fuel.
It’s no secret that aviation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally the industry is responsible for around 2% of carbon emissions. In the UK it’s around 7%. While some had predicted that a ‘Greta effect’ may lead to reduced demand for air travel, in reality it continues to grow. One potential route to mitigating the environmental impact of that growth is the use of renewable fuels, and in that regard, waste could be the ideal feedstock.
British Airways’ collaboration with Velocys was first announced in September 2017 and in August this year Altalto Immingham Limited, a subsidiary of British sustainable fuels technology company Velocys and a collaboration with project co-investors British Airways and Shell, submitted a planning application to develop what is expected to be Europe’s first commercial-scale household and commercial solid waste to sustainable fuels plant in North East Lincolnshire.
The site is near Immingham, close to the Humber Estuary. The plant would take over half a million tonnes each year of non-recyclable household waste otherwise destined for landfill or incineration, and convert it into 60 million litres of clean-burning sustainable jet and road fuel each year.
Altalto secured the site, called Portlink 180, in December last year. It is currently vacant and consists of approximately 80 acres of land in North East Lincolnshire surrounded by existing industrial buildings. Situated in the Humber Enterprise Zone on the banks of the Humber Estuary, the site is earmarked for industrial development within North East Lincolnshire Council’s Local Plan. Immingham and the surrounding ‘Energy Estuary’ is also known for fuels production expertise and has a skilled local workforce that Altalto believes can help deliver this project.
“The submission of the planning application marks a major milestone,” says Alex Cruz, British Airways Chairman and CEO. “Sustainable fuels can be a game-changer for aviation which will help power our aircraft for years to come. This development is an important step in the reduction of our carbon emissions and meeting the industry targets of carbon-neutral growth from 2020, and a 50% in CO2 reduction by 2050 from 2005 levels.”
According to Altalto, the proposed project would use proven technologies, but in a new way, to deliver a cost-effective and sustainable supply of renewable fuels. The technology, integrated by Velocys, is expected to enable a net 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for each tonne of sustainable jet fuel that displaces a tonne of conventional fuel.
The plant’s main product will be Synthetic Paraffinic Kerosene (SPK), which is approved worldwide for commercial aviation at up to 50% in a blend with conventional jet fuel. The other product is naphtha, a constituent of petrol, which will help to reduce the net CO2 emissions of road users. The fuel also improves air quality, with up to 90% reduction in particulate matter (soot) from aircraft engine exhausts and almost 100% reduction in sulphur oxides.
“This will cut greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, as well as improving air quality and helping to tackle our waste problem. This is a vital step towards the ultimate goal of living in a net-zero carbon world by the middle of the century,” says Henrik Wareborn, CEO at Velocys.
Velocys, originally a spin-out from Oxford University, has developed proprietary Fischer-Tropsch technology that enables the production of drop-in transport fuels from the embedded carbon-sources in a variety of waste materials. Having demonstrated its technology at a commercial scale, the company is also currently developing a project in Natchez, Mississippi.
The basic concept of converting solids into liquid fuels using this route has been in industrial use for decades. However, Velocys explains that it has modified the four-stage process to make it suitable for the production of jet fuel and other transport fuel from waste:
- First, the incoming waste is received, sorted and prepared.
- Next, the solid waste is gasified: heated to a high temperature to break it down and convert it into synthesis gas or syngas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen).
- After cleaning, the syngas is used to synthesise hydrocarbons using the Fischer-Tropsch technology provided by Velocys.
- These hydrocarbons are then refined into the final products: renewable jet fuel (in the form of SPK) and naphtha.
The process can accept a wide variety of waste, while delivering a clean product. There are very limited emissions to atmosphere from the plant except for water and carbon dioxide. Components of the waste which do not get turned into fuel, such as metals and stones, are recycled; a small amount of it (less than 3%) goes to landfill.
Velocys will also supply the central processing unit: micro-Channel Fischer-Tropsch reactors with the proprietary Velocys Actocat catalyst. This is the part of the process that turns a gas mixture of carbon and hydrogen into the liquid hydrocarbons required to create sustainable fuels.
Shell intends to purchase both jet fuel and road fuel from Altalto, which may then be blended and sold to Shell’s customers, helping to reduce their carbon footprint. Shell will also provide technical expertise, based on its long experience of gasification and Fischer-Tropsch conversion.
According to Velocys, while there are many clean ways of making electricity, it is actually very difficult to make sustainable jet fuel, and this is one of the very few economic ways of doing so.
In terms of the environment, there’s no doubt that a reduction in air travel would be a good thing. While there isn’t yet any sign that such a scenario is likely in the near future, a less polluting way to fly may be the next best option.
“This will cut greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, as well as improving air quality and helping to tackle our waste problem. This is a vital step towards the ultimate goal of living in a net zero carbon world by the middle of the century,” concludes Wareborn.
Subject to planning and funding decisions, Altalto plans to begin construction in 2021 and to start producing commercial volumes of sustainable aviation fuel in 2024.