Innovative Breakthrough in SAF Technology

Published:  30 November, 2023

The success of the first-ever 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) trans-Atlantic flight by a commercial airline, operated by Virgin Atlantic, signifies a new era in SAF technology. This step towards eco-friendly air travel was made possible thanks to an innovative process, BioForming Sugar to Aromatics (S2A). The technology was originally invented by Virent and jointly developed for commercialisation by Virent and Johnson Matthey. The process marks a significant move towards decarbonising the aviation sector and a breakthrough in SAF.

Aviation carbon emissions are among the most difficult to abate. In recent times, low percentages of SAF have been used to power aircraft, when mixed with conventional jet fuel. However, powered entirely by SAF, the Virgin Atlantic trans-Atlantic flight is a testament to the potential that sustainable fuels offer in revolutionising the aviation industry, and the importance of continued developments in the chemicals industry.

The cornerstone of this historic flight, conducted by an unmodified airplane in current service, is the development of bio-based aromatics that enhance SAF blending and enable 100% SAF to be used in existing aircraft and fuelling system infrastructure. In line with international jet fuel standards (Jet A), synthetic jet fuel requires 8-25% aromatic content to help prevent fuel leakage, increase lubricity, and ensure proper fuel system performance. Up until now this has been achieved by blending SAF with conventional fuel. However, the BioForming® process has changed this by converting sustainable plant sugars into a bio-aromatic product, BioForm® Synthesized Aromatic Kerosene (SAK).

SAK supplies the necessary aromatics for jet fuel and can be blended with a range of other SAF, accelerating the shift from conventional fuel to sustainable alternatives compatible with existing aviation technology. The various demonstration flights using BioForm SAK have also shown that SAK can be a ‘normaliser’ to ensure different SAF blendstocks can be brought within specification and meet aviation performance criteria.

Maurits van Tol, Chief Executive of Catalyst Technologies at Johnson Matthey, said: "BioForming® technology is a crucial element to decarbonise air travel. The success of the Virgin Atlantic flight is a huge step forward and heralds the need for rapid expansion of SAF production. Johnson Matthey has worked with Virent, to further develop and optimise the process and catalysts that underpin the BioForming® S2A technology.”

Virent President and General Counsel, Dave Kettner, added: “Virgin Atlantic’s historic transatlantic flight further demonstrates the opportunity to move the aviation industry further towards carbon neutrality and its objective of reducing emissions. We have specifically designed the BioForming S2A technology to produce an aromatic jet fuel component that not only helps meet current jet fuel specifications, but also helps provide a cleaner burning and more efficient jet fuel free of naphthalenes, thereby reducing particulate matter emissions.”

BioForm SAK provides the aromatics needed in the jet fuel used for current aircraft and infrastructure without the need for any overhaul or modification. This means that sustainable aviation fuel can be completely ‘drop-in’. It presents a pivotal moment in the aviation industry's journey towards decarbonisation and sustainability.

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