Boeing sets a timetable for going all-green

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Boeing has set a goal to have all of its aircraft, including existing planes, able to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.
Boeing has set a goal to have all of its aircraft, including existing planes, able to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

Boeing has set a goal to have all of its aircraft, including existing planes, able to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by 2030.

Such a move would significantly increase the ability for the airline industry to reduce emissions since current regulations cap the amount of SAF that can be on any flight at no more than 50% of the total fuel. SAF is instead required to be blended with standard kerosene-based jet fuel.

• Related: Sustainable fuel taking off

Used on its own, SAF can deliver emissions reductions of up to 80% in comparison with conventional jet fuel, airlines and SAF producers say.

The Covid-19 crisis pushed airlines’ burgeoning focus on sustainability to the back burner, but experts expect ecofriendly initiatives and promises to survive the pandemic.

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"Boeing's commitment is to determine what changes are required for its current and future commercial airplanes to fly on 100% sustainable fuels and to work with regulatory authorities and across the industry to raise the blending limit for expanded use," the company said.

The airline industry had pledged to reduce emissions 50% from 2005 levels by 2050, though some individual airlines have made stronger commitments in the face of substantial public pressure. SAF, which can be produced from various feedstocks, including animal fats, vegetable oils, forestry residue and garbage, is viewed by many within and outside the industry as the most feasible way for airlines to reach emission targets quickly, especially for  medium range and long-haul flights, for which battery power is likely out of reach in the foreseeable future.

Hydrogen is also garnering growing attention as a potential power source of the future for airplanes.

• Related: Airbus develops zero-emission concept planes, but experts doubt idea will fly

IATA estimates that annual production of SAF is currently 13 million gallons, a tiny fraction of the approximately 80 billion gallons per year of fuel that airlines were using prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Steve Csonka, executive director of the Commercial Aviation Fuels Initiative, a U.S.-based coalition charged with bringing SAF to market, explained that while SAF can already power airplanes on its own, it has distinctions from conventional jet fuel that could potentially cause engine problems if used unblended.

For example, he said, some forms of SAF, if used on their own, could cause elastic engine tank seals to shrink, leading to fuel leakage.

"So, one of the things Boeing might do going forward is to remove all elastomers from the aircraft and engines that are susceptible to this behavior.  This is just one example of several things like this that need to be addressed," Csonka said.

He added that it is key that all approved forms of SAF ultimately be usable both on existing and future aircraft so that the airline industry does not have to rely on segregated fuel supplies.

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