The iconic oil-producing state of Texas is living proof that a leopard can change its spots, or at least acquire new spots. Texas has already claimed leadership roles in US wind and solar production. Now it is lighting a fire under the emerging eFuels industry, which deploys captured waste carbon and renewable energy to formulate new synthetic fuels. In the latest development, Texas is hosting a new eFuels project aimed at cutting the carbon footprint of air travel, with American Airlines on board to kickstart the venture.
Decarbonizing Air Travel With eFuels
If you’re wondering why air travel is the target for the new eFuels venture in Texas, that’s a good question. After all, much has been made of batteries and fuel cells to power the zero emission flight of the future with electricity, not liquid fuel (check out more CleanTechnica electric flight coverage here and here).
However, electrified flight will take some time. So far, only smaller electric aircraft are on the near-term horizon. The airline industry has been eyeballing a quicker decarbonization fix for larger aircraft, in the form of new fuel-efficient technologies and new bio-based fuels that fall under the category of SAFs (Sustainable Aviation Fuels).
The going has been slow on SAF adoption, too, but significant progress has been made since the early 2000s, when algae biofuel was a focus of attention. Earlier this year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory took note of progress in the SAF field and other areas related to sustainable air travel.
Still, scaling up for widespread SAF adoption is a complex endeavor. The Energy Department has set a 3 billion-gallon goal for SAF production by 2030, towards a long term goal of 35 billion gallons by 2050.
That’s going to be a tough row to hoe, considering the amount of SAF produced in the US today, which stood at just 15.8 million gallons in 2022. “Currently, this fuel is used at two large airports, but accounts for less than 0.1% of the jet fuel used by major U.S. airlines,” noted the US Government Accountability Office in a report on SAF goals last spring.
The eFuels Revolution Comes To Texas
The sudden emergence of the eFuels industry could help hurry things along in the SAF field. Also called electrofuels, eFuels have been riding piggyback on the exploding growth of the green hydrogen industry. Most of the green hydrogen activity today centers around electrolysis, which deploys electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable resources to push hydrogen gas from water.
The missing ingredient is carbon dioxide, which can be sourced from the waste gas emitted by biorefineries and other industrial sites.
There being no such thing as a free lunch, the rise of eFuels raises questions about competition for renewable energy between electrolysis systems and other needs. The construction of new carbon pipelines has also emerged as a sore point.
Nevertheless, Texas has already emerged as a hotspot of eFuels activity, thanks in part to green hydrogen stakeholders. A couple of recent examples are the Danish eFuels leader Topsoe, which is also dipping a toe in the related field of green ammonia, as well as the firm HIF Global.
More SAFs For American Airlines
The American Airlines connection surfaced on November 29, when the company announced that it has hooked up with the leading eFuels firm Infinium and the Breakthrough Energy Catalyst fund to help kickstart the SAF sector into high gear, through a new venture called Project Roadrunner.
Project Roadrunner represents a step up from the conventional model for bringing SAFs to market, because American Airlines is bringing a firm offtake agreement to the table. If all goes according to plan, the offtake angle could serve as a model for other SAF buyers to scale up investment in new SAF facilities.
“American joined Breakthrough Energy Catalyst as an anchor partner to accelerate the development of next-generation clean energy technologies, including SAF,” American Airlines explained in a press release. “The agreement provides one model for how airlines can use offtake agreements to help promising new SAF technologies attract investment dollars.”
The Roadrunner Project — not to be confused with a similarly named Tesla initiative — involves an equity commitment of $75 million from Breakthrough, aimed at leveraging the construction of a commercial-scale eFuels facility in West Texas. American Airlines expects it to be the largest facility of its kind in North America (if not the world), once up and running.
CleanTechnica is reaching out to Infinium for more details on Project Roadrunner, including the source of the waste carbon dioxide and the renewable energy inputs for its power systems. Water resources are another angle of concern for green hydrogen and eFuels producers.
All else being equal, though, American anticipates that Infinium’s aviation eFuel will reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. American states that the 90% mark beats other SAFs on the market today, though it’s pretty much in line with expectations for other SAFs, some of which could surpass 100% if land use considerations are factored in.
In an interesting twist, another Breakthrough partner — Citi — will deploy the GHG cuts from American Airlines to help chip away at emissions related to employee travel. Val Smith, the Chief Sustainability Officer at Citi, anticipates that the agreement will motivate other travel-heavy firms to invest in eFuels and other SAFs.
“We hope the offtake arrangement with American, where we combine their direct use of SAF with our indirect use through our business travel, will serve as one model for how offtake agreements can be used to help scale up future solutions for low-emissions air travel,” Smith said.
Renewable energy ventures in Texas tend to attract attention due to the contrast with the state’s historic roots in the oil industry. The eFuels activity is also notable in political terms, because Texas is one of a dozen or so states in which public officials have taken steps to protect fossil energy stakeholders, obstruct renewable energy investment, or both.
Nevertheless, the investment dollars have been pouring in, and eFuels are not the only focus of attention. Texas is also the site of a public-private Energy Department project aimed at pushing new supercritical carbon dioxide turbines into the market, and it is hosting a number of interesting new energy storage technologies.
Energy industry observers have raised alarms that Texas politics could get in the way of future investments in clean technology, but it seems that a turbo-boost from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act will keep the momentum going.
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Photo (cropped): Roadrunner eFuels project in Texas, courtesy of Infinium.
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