Breaking Barriers: Ethanol’s Role in Reducing Aviation’s Carbon Footprint

The following is an article originally published in the January/February 2024 issue of Ethanol Today.

Breaking Barriers: Ethanol’s Role in Reducing Aviation’s Carbon Footprint

By Kristine Klavers, Managing Director, Houston, Petroleum and Refining

The ethanol industry, traditionally known for providing high-octane renewable blendstock in gasoline for internal combustion engines, is now turning its expertise toward aviation, crafting a new narrative in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Ethanol producers see SAF as a promising opportunity to grow their industry amid rising sales of electric vehicles (EVs). This strategic shift towards SAF production is a testament to ethanol’s versatility and potential to significantly reduce the aviation sector’s carbon footprint.

Central to its feasibility and wider use, is reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to petroleum jet fuel and achieving a low carbon intensity (CI) score. A CI score that indicates low GHG emissions throughout the fuel’s lifecycle, from farming, transportation, production, and use is crucial for environmental compliance and market viability.

READ MORE: U.S. Treasury and IRS Release Guidance on Section 40B Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Credits

Today, the majority of the SAF used to date (in the U.S. and the European Union) is being produced via the hydrogenation of seed oils such as soybean oil and rapeseed oil, animal fats, distiller’s corn (DCO) and used cooking oil (UCO) – otherwise known as hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA). While not at economies of scale like the HEFA route, alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) technology pathways are showing promise as a contributor to SAF production in the long term. In early 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the first Renewable Fuel Standard pathway for Lanzajet’s production of SAF from Brazilian undenatured sugarcane ethanol. The EPA determined this pathway gives a 54-66 percent reduction in GHGs compared to petroleum jet fuel.

Navigating the emerging SAF markets’ technical and regulatory landscape is challenging but it doesn’t have to be. Companies like EcoEngineers are pivotal in ensuring feedstock and production compliance, facilitating technology and feedstock pathway registration, and conducting risk analysis and feasibility studies. Its expertise in Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA), indirect land use calculations (iLUC), regulatory engagement, compliance management and carbon market navigation are invaluable for ethanol producers transitioning to SAF production.

While the lifecycle emissions profile of corn ethanol doesn’t have an inherently low CI score, innovative land management and the addition of carbon capture and storage (CCS) can help further reduce its carbon footprint. However, integrating ethanol into the SAF market demands a deep understanding of carbon pipeline logistics, managing carbon dioxide (CO2) capture, transport and sequestration, which is critical for reducing overall emissions. Integrating sustainable farming practices like cover cropping, no-till farming and the use of green fertilizer could reduce the overall CI score of ethanol production even further. The technical, regulatory and public acceptance challenges in this domain necessitate a nuanced approach, combining industry knowledge with environmental stewardship.

READ MORE: Renewable Diesel and SAF: The Path to Net Zero

The ethanol industry’s venture into SAF production is a bold step toward a more sustainable aviation sector. With the support of specialists like EcoEngineers, the industry is well-equipped to overcome the challenges of SAF production, proving ethanol’s role in the energy landscape is evolving to meet modern-day environmental challenges. This shift underscores the industry’s adaptability and commitment to innovative solutions, paving the way for a more sustainable future in aviation fuel technology.

SAFFor more information about our SAF or petroleum refining services, contact:

Kristine Klavers, Managing Director, Houston, Petroleum and Refining |

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