Clean cargo: the carbon-neutral German plane that makes weekly trips to China
Flying high above the clouds, Lufthansa flight 8400 to Shanghai is unlike any other.
It carries nearly 100 tons of freight, including auto parts, machinery and some pharmaceuticals.
But unlike other air freighters, which have an expensive environmental footprint, this aircraft does not add any CO2 emissions.
Once a week, Lufthansa Cargo operates one of the world’s first scheduled flights powered by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). It is an expensive but greener alternative to traditional jet fuel.
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Lufthansa flights use SAFs made from bio-waste such as leftover cooking oil and vegetables, as opposed to traditional fossil fuels.
“It grew like a plant, like a vegetable – just a few days ago it was removing CO2 from the atmosphere and now putting it on the plane, it is returning to the atmosphere,” Achim Martinka explained, vice president of Lufthansa Cargo in Germany.
Unlike other alternatives to fossil fuels, SAF does not require planes to be modified to fly with it.
The dedicated Boeing 777 flying between Frankfurt and Shanghai can refuel with regular fuel or from a more sustainable source if the destination airport offers it.
Costs are high, supplies are limited
However, there’s a reason the world’s airlines aren’t rushing to incorporate sustainable fuel into their fleets: SAF supplies are limited and can cost airlines three to five times more than traditional fuel.
In fact, used cooking oil, the most popular SAF base, trades at raw material prices close to or above the cost of new and unused cooking oil.
“We need a lot more producers because the more production we have, the better the price will be at the end,” Martinka said.
But scientists say that while increasing the production of FASs fueled by bio-waste is a good first step, it is not the final answer.
“We cannot continue with fossil fuels. We have to switch to a sustainable fuel,” said Alexander Zschocke, SAF researcher at CENA Hessen. “But if you look at bio-waste, it’s limited. If you want to use more of it, you push up the prices, which creates an incentive to produce waste.”
Jet fuel from scratch?
Zschocke is exploring the possibility of producing sustainable jet fuel from scratch using a method known as “power to liquid”.
Still in the early stages of research, the liquid supply extracts carbon from the air and combines it with hydrogen via electrolyzed water.
“It could certainly meet all the needs of aviation. The crucial factor here will be renewable electricity,” Zschocke said.
There could possibly be enough to power all of today’s flights. However, production in larger quantities is not expected for at least 10 years.