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The holy grail of aviation: net-zero flights ‘on the horizon’, say scientists

American researchers have developed a technique to convert food waste into jet fuel, bringing the prospect of net zero flights one step closer.

Beachside pina coladas could soon taste a bit sweeter to climate-conscious tourists thanks to a new jet fuel, which scientists say dramatically reduces emissions from planes.

The kerosene alternative was developed by American researchers, who used a process known as ‘biorefining’ turn food waste into a kind of paraffin that works in airplane engines.

The team behind the fuel claims that it reduces aircraft greenhouse gas emissions by 165 percent. That figure comes from the reduction in carbon emitted by the jets, plus the emissions saved when food waste is diverted from the landfill, where it emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

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Aviation remains one of the biggest hurdles in the race to net zero. While the sector accounts for only three percent of global emissionsThe International Council on Clean Transportation expects air travel to triple by 2050, which could undermine climate goals.

Although batteries have been successfully tested in small aircraft, electric commercial aircraft are still a distant prospect. And while green hydrogen is being viewed by some in the industry as the future of aviation, the development of so-called sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is seen as the most viable short-term solution when it comes to reducing emissions from the sector.

In a report Released Monday, the scientists behind the new fuel said it could be commercially viable within two years, pending regulatory approval.

“That means net zero-carbon flights are on the horizon sooner than some might have thought,” said Derek Vardon, senior research engineer at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory and lead author of the study. .

Demand for air travel is projected to triple by 2050, potentially undermining climate targets. Image: Ashim D’Silva

Vardon admitted that fuel was not “a magic bullet” but said that “as a piece of the puzzle it could make a significant dent in an industry notoriously difficult to decarbonize.”

The study comes as the UK government launches a contest to usher in a “new era of blameless flying”. Below plans announced today by the Department of Transportation, companies will be able to bid on a share of a £ 15 million pot to develop “one-off production plants” that produce fuel from waste.

Although some climate activists dismiss it as a green wash, some big names in aviation have invested in projects to develop SAF. British Airways recently announced that it was investing in a plant in Georgia, USA, that will produce fuel from agricultural and other waste.

In the meantime, Dutch airline KLM offered a simpler solution to reduce aircraft emissions, which proposed to travelers before the pandemic: fly less.

Lead Image: Philip Myrtorp

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