Airlines eye shift to greener fuels with carbon neutrality in sight

Going electric may be one solution for automakers to ride a global decarbonization trend, but for airlines, it is greener fuels that are grabbing their attention.

Japan has joined a group of nations in pledging to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 but still lags behind Europe and the United States where more companies put biofuels from materials like waste cooking oil into commercial use for airlines. Hydrogen is also seen as an alternative source to fly aircraft.

Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. has also unveiled its plan to enter the hydrogen-powered aircraft business, aiming to take the lead in core technologies for hydrogen engines and liquefied hydrogen fuel tanks.

In late June, a private business jet developed by Honda Motor Co. flew from Kagoshima Prefecture in southwestern Japan to Tokyo’s Haneda airport, the first such flight using a biofuel produced from euglena, a type of algae.

About 10 percent of the biofuel used for the flight came from euglena and the rest from waste oil, according to Euglena Co., the Japanese provider of the fuel.

“Japan is a few years behind as there are already leading biojet manufacturers abroad,” Akihiko Nagata, executive vice president of the firm, said during a press conference about the flight.

Carbon dioxide or CO2 is produced when biofuels are burned. Euglena is known to produce oil, a source of biofuel, and takes in CO2 when it grows by photosynthesis.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the transport sector accounted for about 18 percent of total CO2 emissions in Japan. By type of transportation, airlines were responsible for about 5 percent while most came from cars, trucks and buses, according to government data.

Major Japanese airlines are seeking to reduce their dependence on fossil jet fuels in the coming years and switching to what they call “sustainable aviation fuels” such as biofuels.

When an airplane is powered by a mixture of conventional jet fuel and a sustainable aviation fuel, it can cut CO2 emissions by around 20 to 30 per cent during a flight, according to data by Japan’s transport ministry. Blending limits are set for using sustainable aviation fuels.

Japan’s major carriers Japan Airlines Corp. and All Nippon Airways Co. have used a biofuel produced from microalgae by Japanese manufacturer IHI Corp. for domestic commercial flights, on which they are seeking to increase use of sustainable aviation fuels.

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