Aviation industry turns to used cooking oil to achieve carbon neutrality

The aviation industry has set itself the ambitious target of reducing its carbon emissions to zero by 2050. A raw material that was previously considered kitchen waste could provide it with a realistic chance of achieving this goal.

"It's no longer waste."

Tsuboi Yasuyuki, the manager of an izakaya in Tokyo, says his restaurant typically runs through several 18-liter drums of cooking oil every month. He usually pays a disposal service to collect the used oil. But recently, he has started receiving inquiries from firms interested in taking it for free. Some are even offering to pay for it.

"We used to consider it waste," says Tsuboi. "Now, people are asking to take it off our hands, which is very strange."

The reason for the sudden demand is that used cooking oil can now be used to produce sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF. About a third of the 400,000 tons collected in Japan in the past year was used for fuel for planes and other vehicles.

SAF is the aviation industry's term for fuel derived from non-fossil sources. Used cooking oil is the main substance used for production, but research is underway to identify other viable waste sources.

Saving grace

In October, the International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, set a target for international carriers to slash carbon emissions to virtually zero by 2050. This was in response to mounting public pressure on the aviation industry to reduce its footprint.

Experts at the Air Transport Action Group say the aviation industry emitted 915 million tons of CO2 in 2019. That is roughly 2 percent of total global emissions.

Airlines have been taking steps to reduce emissions in recent years. They have started using more fuel-efficient aircraft and following shorter flight paths. But these measures will likely only reduce emissions to about 20 to 30 percent of the ICAO target. Manufacturers are also developing hydrogen- and electric-powered aircraft, but they are nowhere near being ready for commercial use.

As a result, the aviation industry increasingly sees SAF as its saving grace. Estimates suggest that replacing conventional jet fuel with SAF would reduce industry-wide emissions by approximately 80 percent.

Making inroads in Asia

EU policy promoting SAF means the fuel is predominately used in Europe. But a major plant is now under construction in Singapore that would have an annual production capacity of one million tons, about five times the current global total of 200,000.

Finnish company Neste is the world's largest SAF producer and is involved in the project. The company supplies Japanese airlines with SAF through trading firm Itochu Corporation.

Neste executive Sami Jauhiainen says the plant is part of his company's efforts to grow the industry and raise the use of SAF in Asia.

"The Asia Pacific region accounts for nearly 40 percent of global jet fuel consumption, and this will continue to grow in the coming years and decades," Jauhiainen says. "We will be well-positioned to meet the needs and customer demands of the entire Asia Pacific region from our production plant in Singapore."

Japan prepares for SAF

Last year, a range of prominent Japanese companies formed Act For Sky, an organization dedicated to producing and promoting SAF. Members include major carriers All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, as well as firms not in the aviation industry, such as Itochu, Idemitsu Kosan, and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

One of the group's key focuses is procuring used cooking oil. It has compiled a list of businesses willing to cooperate, including major fast-food restaurants, frozen food producers, sushi chains, and hotels.

Three Act For Sky members, JGC, Cosmo Oil and REVO International are leading the group's efforts to produce SAF domestically. They are currently building a plant in Sakai City, Osaka, that will have a production target of approximately 30,000 tons in three years. It's a relatively small amount but it's just the first of many such projects planned in Japan.

Nishimura Yuki, a JGC executive involved in Act For Sky, says establishing a domestic production base is crucial to ensuring the sustainability of the overall SAF project.

"Used cooking oil is currently sent overseas, processed into SAF, and brought back to Japan," Nishimura says. "Of course, exporting and importing produces carbon dioxide and costs money. So given Japan's national interests and goals for decarbonization, we need something different."

Competition among countries has been heating up in the search for options other than used cooking oil. Increase in demand for such waste oil has sent prices soaring and led to worries of a supply shortage. Some researchers believe food waste and wood have the potential to be used in SAF.

"I'm determined to put all my effort into developing domestic SAF," says Nishimura, "so people won't feel flight shame anymore."

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