India’s sustainable jet fuel may get internationally certified in 2023

Researchers believe inadequate feedstock collection mechanisms and a lack of refineries could prevent its mass scaling

By Seema Prasad
Published: Thursday 27 April 2023
Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

A bio-jet fuel, also known as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), produced using home-grown technology from cooking oil and seeds of oil-bearing plants will likely be certified internationally this year. An international certification would allow the SAF to be used in commercial flights in India. 

The Indian Institute of Petroleum (IIP), a laboratory of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has tied up with Boeing, Indigo, Spicejet and the three Tata Airlines — Air India, Vistara and Air Asia India — to support the production of SAF. 

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The Indian Air Force received provisional certification in November 2021 to use SAF on their test flights, subject to case-by-case approval by the aircraft manufacturer concerned. However, it is yet to be internationally certified for use in commercial airlines in India.

CSIR-IIP-produced SAF is likely to obtain international certification this year and will drive up demand from the civil aviation sector, Anjan Ray, director at CSIR-IIP in Dehradun, told Down to Earth (DTE).

The institute’s SAF samples have been sent to the United States Federal Aviation Administration Clearinghouse for rigorous testing to obtain the ASTM D4054 qualification from ASTM International. The Pennsylvania-based organisation develops and publishes standards for products and services globally. 

“The process takes 18-24 months. We are moving as per plan. Before the certification can be awarded, it has to go through a ballot, where it is voted on by engine and airline manufacturers, organisations working on key components and safety regulators. The certification is expected within the next 12 months,” Ray told DTE.

The world presently has only two major aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus. ASTM D7566 certification allows international airframe manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus to issue Service Letters permitting the use of the specified approved fuel on all aircraft, according to the CSIR-IIP director. 

“There is a lot of interest globally as CSIR-IIP has received multiple inquiries from international players to license the trademarked DILSAAF process for production outside the country,” Ray explained to DTE.

The CSIR-IIP pilot plant in Dehradun has produced 10,000 litres of fuel for the IAF to date. It was produced from feedstock like non-edible, edible and used cooking oil. Specifically, palm stearin, sapium oil, palm fatty acid distillates, algae oil, karanja and jatropha were used. 

The IIP’s fuel received provisional certification from the Centre for Military Airworthiness & Certification (CEMILAC), a laboratory of the Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation, which the Directorate General of Aeronautical Quality Assurance approved.

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SAF scaling in India

Aviation biofuel can be blended with conventional jet fuel for use. Its sulphur content is much lower, which can help reduce air pollution and contribute to India’s Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions targets, according to a press briefing from the Centre released in November 2021.

If approved for commercial usage this year, the question of the country’s ability to scale it for mass production comes into play. One public sector unit, Mangalore Refinery and Petrochemicals Ltd, is setting up the first plant, which is expected to come online by early 2025. 

However, two more such SAF plants are expected to be set up by other refineries in the near future, probably by 2025-26.

The Mangalore Refinery can produce 20 tonnes of SAF per day, meaning about 7,000 tonnes per year, Ray told DTE. “But to achieve even a per cent of blending of SAF in India, you need about 60,000 tonnes a year.”

In the European Union, the blending of SAF with conventional jet fuel made of gasoline and kerosene starts at two per cent in 2025 and increases through five-year intervals to reach 63 per cent in 2050. This would comprise 28 per cent of synthetic aviation fuels too. 

The US Congress introduced the Sustainable Skies Act in May 2021 to bring in incentives to use SAF. It includes a $1 billion grant over five years to expand the number of SAF-producing facilities in the US. 

In India, Civil Aviation Secretary Rajiv Bansal, in November 2022 said the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation is in talks with the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas to legally mandate the jet fuel blending.

This was currently not a priority due to issues with feedstock and production, he indicated. 

“There is a lack of segregation, collection and supply mechanism and infrastructure for biofuel feedstocks in general and particularly for SAF-appropriate raw materials,” Kaveri Ashok, a senior associate at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP) told DTE.

However, India has a reasonably substantial feedstock pool of used cooking oil and animal fat, much of which is being exported to international producers of SAF and renewable diesel such as Neste Oil in Singapore and the EU, according to Ray.  

“There is enough demand in India for these feedstocks to make biodiesel or SAF, but the export happens much higher prices than domestic producers can pay. This is compromising the domestic availability of feedstock for SAF and biodiesel,” Ray added.

Ashok believes that India will not need to cultivate any fresh biomass specifically for SAF at the current adoption rate. Crop residues that would otherwise go to waste are the biomass that will be used. SAF can also be made from used cooking oil or ethanol. 

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“If an extensive cultivation of crops is needed specifically for SAF production at a larger level, there will be trade-offs with food/water security, health / nutrition and so on,” Ashok said. 

Demand for bio-jet fuel must be increased through a national policy, along the lines of the National Biofuel Policy, for it to be commercially scaled and to accelerate production, said Ramya Natarajan, group head of climate change mitigation at CSTEP and reviewer of a recent study on sustainable aviation in India.

A nodal agency to implement this policy should be formed to bring together energy, transportation and agriculture sectors together under one roof, according to the study. Mapping the sources of the various feedstock could aid this policy, it added. 

So far, a Bio-Aviation Turbine Fuel Program Committee has been constituted by MoPNG to facilitate clean jet fuel production in India. 

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