Flight to Sustainability

Indian carriers moving ahead to accelerate adoption of green fuel in future

Atul Chandra

Significant developments have been taking place towards decarbonisation of India’s aviation sector with two Indian carriers, Vistara and Air Asia India, operating commercial flights using Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) blends in May. The two carriers are not alone in their efforts to accelerate the use of SAF on commercial flights; in fact, all major Indian carriers now have ongoing efforts to minimise their carbon footprint and support a sustainable future for the aviation industry.

Green Aviation

In recent years SAF production technology has grown significantly. Unlike conventional jet fuels, SAF is produced from renewable sources such as agricultural waste, municipal solid waste and forestry residues. The use of SAF blends in commercial aviation can reduce CO₂ emissions by as much as 65% over the fuel’s life cycle with the potential to reach 100% in the future. SAF is now recognised as having the most immediate and the greatest potential to decarbonize aviation over the next two to three decades.

While Vistara became the first Indian airline to operate a commercial domestic flight on a wide-body aircraft using SAF, Air Asia India (now part of Air India Express) achieved the distinction of operating the nation’s first commercial passenger flight using an indigenously produced SAF blend. It was SpiceJet which operated India’s first-ever BioJet Fuel powered flight in August 2018. The airline operated a De Havilland Canada Q400 regional transport aircraft on the Dehradun-Delhi sector for the test flight. India’s leading airline, IndiGo, is also on the SAF bandwagon, having operated a brand new A320neo on a ferry flight from Toulouse, France, to New Delhi in February 2022 using a 10 per cent SAF blend.

SAF remains one of the most important and useable key technologies available to government and industry in decarbonising aviation. But development and production of SAF are currently limited due to high capital costs and its reliance on technology that is yet to be proven at scale. While extensive use of SAF on commercial flights is still some time away, recent test flights by Indian carriers provide vital data on future commercial operations with SAF.


SAF Power

Vistara opted for using a blend of 17 per cent SAF with 83 per cent conventional jet fuel on a brand new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which flew from the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA), Delhi, to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, Mumbai. The use of an SAF blend allowed Vistara to reduce CO₂ emissions by 5,000 kg on this flight alone.


In April, Vistara had become the first Indian carrier to operate a wide-body aircraft on a long-haul international route using SAF. This was a ferry flight of a brand new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner between Charleston International Airport, South Carolina, to the Indira Gandhi International Airport, Delhi. On this flight, Vistara opted to use a blend of 30 per cent SAF and 70 per cent conventional jet fuel. The airline stated that the use of this SAF blend resulted in a reduction of approximately 75,000 kg of CO₂ emissions over the fuel’s life cycle.

Air Asia India’s commercial flight using a blend of ‘indigenous’ SAF on a short-haul was another major milestone in the effort to decarbonise India’s aviation sector. AirAsia India operated the flight from Pune to New Delhi. Short-haul flights are a major source of CO₂ emissions and SAF is presently the quickest solution to reducing these emissions. The blend of indigenous SAF was supplied by Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL) in partnership with Praj Industries (Praj), which produced the SAF indigenously by using captive agricultural feedstock.

Speaking on the occasion, Union minister for petroleum and natural gas Hardeep Singh Puri, said this was the first domestic commercial passenger flight with SAF blending of up to 1 per cent in demonstration mode. “By 2025, if we target to blend 1 per cent SAF blending in Jet fuel, India would require around 14 crore litres of SAF/annum. More ambitiously, if we target 5 per cent SAF blend, India requires around 70 crore litres of SAF/annum.” Praj Industries sourced the SAF for the test flight in partnership with Gevo Inc., which has developed a breakthrough Alcohol-to-Jet (ATJ) technology for the production of SAF using bio-based feedstock. Praj produced SAF samples in its R&D facility, Praj Matrix, which was then rigorously testing by IOCL at its laboratories before it was blended for the special flight.


Partnering for Progress

The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research–Indian Institute of Petroleum (CSIR-IIP), Dehradun has emerged as an important partner for Indian carriers seeking greater usage of SAF on commercial flights. The CSIR-IIP is the first and currently the only organisation in India that is developing a fully indigenous SAF in India. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) had issued the Indian Standard for Bio-Jet Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) in January 2019. India has also joined the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s (ICAO) Assistance Capacity Building & Training for SAF Programme.

Vistara inked an MoU in 2022 with CSIR-IIP to collaborate on the research, development and deployment of SAF. The airline, along with Air India and Air India Express, has been working extensively towards reduction of carbon emissions through use of sustainable technologies.

IndiGo entered into an agreement with CSIR-IIP in December 2021 to accelerate the deployment of SAF in India and globally. At the time, IndiGo had announced its desire to be an anchor partner to such institutes and oil refining companies in the future to address the core issue of carbon emissions. IndiGo has been working towards controlling emissions and in the process building supply chains for manufacturing and deploying SAF in India and globally. In March 2022 SpiceJet announced that it was working alongside Boeing and CSIR-IIP to explore opportunities for the use of SAF in the Indian aviation industry. SpiceJet and Boeing will work together to leverage SAF supply from CSIR-IIP and its production partners and licensees to help the former decarbonize its fleet. In 2021, Boeing had committed to deliver its commercial airplanes capable and certified to fly on 100 per cent SAF by 2030.


In August 2022, IndiGo became a signatory in the Clear Skies for Tomorrow, India Coalition campaign, spearheaded by the World Economic Forum, further enhancing its commitment to deployment of sustainable initiatives will help in achieving a significant scale for SAF to gain a critical mass and bring in cost-efficiency for widespread adoption in India. Launched in January 2019, the goal of the Clear Skies for Tomorrow initiative is to align the aviation industry on a transition to SAF to achieve carbon-neutral flying. The goal is production of commercially viable SAF (both bio and synthetic) at scale for industry-wide adoption by 2030 to support aviation’s overall net-zero pathway by 2050. In the medium term governments and industry stakeholders will need to come together to accelerate the supply and use of SAF technologies to reach 10 per cent of global jet aviation fuel supply by 2030.


SAF for Future

SAF can be processed from several feedstocks such as used fat, oil and grease, municipal waste, agricultural and forestry waste, and residues. When processed into SAF and certified for commercial use, it can be blended with traditional jet fuel without modifications to airplanes, engines or fuelling infrastructure. SAF is a ‘drop-in’ fuel that can currently be blended with up to 50 per cent conventional jet fuel, requiring no aircraft modifications.

In February, Boeing announced that it would more than double the company’s SAF procurement as compared to 2022 and entered into agreements to purchase 21.2 million litres of blended SAF produced by Neste, the world’s leading SAF producer. Boeing’s SAF procurement for 2023 makes up 25 per cent of the company’s total jet fuel needs from 2022. Boeing began initial SAF test flights in 2008, following which it enabled approval for commercial use of SAF in 2011 and airplane delivery flights in 2012. Boeing began offering customers the option to power commercial delivery flights with SAF in 2019.

According to Airbus, SAF can reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by up to 80 per cent compared to conventional fuel. All Airbus aircraft and helicopters are currently capable of flying with up to a blend of 50 per cent of SAF. In a major milestone in March this year, an A321neo powered by CFM International LEAP-1A engine made a test flight from Airbus’ headquarters in Toulouse, France with both of its engines powered by 100 per cent unblended SAF.

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