Sustainable Aviation Fuel Takeoff Set

Sustainable Aviation Fuel Presents Economic Opportunity for Agriculture and Ethanol

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Gevo Inc. has set a goal to produce 1 billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel by 2030. (Photo by CC-BY-SA-4.0)

LAVISTA, Neb. (DTN) -- Though talk of a renewable energy future often focuses on shiny new objects, including electric vehicles and drop-in fuels, perhaps the hottest thing going in the sector is sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.

However, an executive with one of the top companies in pursuit of SAF said the industry will only make it to full commercial scale with help from the corn-based ethanol industry.

In presenting his company's ethanol-to-SAF technology to a group of ethanol producers and farmers this week during an ethanol conference in Nebraska, Gevo Inc. COO Chris Ryan said his company needs the ethanol industry to make it happen.

"Where we're at today is pretty exciting, because now we've got people with deep pockets, oil companies, for example, that have energy transition teams," he said.

"So, our focus for first commercial plant is to go through ethanol to get to SAF. Now to get to a billion gallons (by 2030), obviously, it takes more than just our first plant in South Dakota. We're out talking to ethanol producers, any ethanol producer that's out there that's interested in partnering with us or selling their ethanol plant and has an ethanol plant that can be decarbonized."

Ryan said achieving that level of SAF production would attract new investment to his company.

In October 2021, the Colorado-based Gevo and Archer Daniels Midland reached an agreement to jointly produce up to 500 million gallons of SAF at ADM ethanol plants.

Ethanol is a key feedstock needed by Gevo to commercially produce SAF.

The Biden administration's call for SAF to account for 10% of all aviation fuel by 2030 has created an opportunity for traditional corn-ethanol producers.

The future for ethanol plants will be in converting ethanol and other carbons into a wide variety of products, including other fuels.

From the launch of the ethanol boom at the turn of the century until now, ethanol companies have continued to evolve. As the carbon economy continues to grow, it will no longer be enough for ethanol companies to produce ethanol and distillers dried grains.

GEVO EXPANDS TO 1 BILLION GALLONS

Presenting the company's technology to a group of ethanol producers and farmers at the Nebraska Ethanol Board's Emerging Issues forum in LaVista, Nebraska, this week, Ryan said Gevo secured agreements with Delta Airlines and oneworld Alliance, to provide SAF volumes.

The Delta agreement includes buying 75 million gallons per year from Gevo for seven years, while the oneworld agreement is for 200 million gallons per year for five years, starting in 2027.

Oneworld's members include 14 different airlines from around the world.

One of the headwinds for SAF, Ryan said, is found in the attitudes on the coasts about the carbon nature of agriculture. Generally, people on the coasts have a negative attitude about farming, he said, and misconceptions about its carbon-reduction actions and capabilities.

Getting to net-zero SAF, Ryan said, will take help from the agriculture community.

"So, you really have to start with sustainable ag, which here in Nebraska, that's an easy conversation to have," he said. However, he noted that on the East and West Coasts, there is a perception that farming is bad, and the average person thinks it's bad to use corn for SAF. More needs to be done to change attitudes about SAF.

SOUTH DAKOTA CONSTRUCTION

Gevo launched construction on its first commercial-scale SAF plant in Preston Lake, South Dakota, with the capacity to produce 60 million gallons -- using corn as a feedstock. In addition to producing SAF, the company hopes to sell hydrogen produced at the plant.

The SAF to be produced by Gevo will be a net-zero fuel, essentially a net-zero carbon footprint.

"It's whatever that your customers believe is the right way to measure that carbon footprint and deliver that at the right cost for the market," Ryan said.

Gevo has spent more than a decade developing a technology that uses isobutanol -- an ethanol cousin -- which allows the company to use agriculture feedstocks such as corn to produce the alcohol.

The company will then use isobutanol to make isobutylene, which is one of the key feedstocks used to produce fuels and chemicals.

Last year, Gevo signed an agreement with a company called Axens, a developer of ethanol-to-jet technology.

Though its primary focus is on SAF, Ryan said Gevo is working on a variety of renewable energy projects, including the use of sunlight, wind and biogas, to produce energy products demanded by the market.

Gevo bought an ethanol plant in Luverne, Minnesota, where the company produces both ethanol and isobutanol.

THE FUTURE

Although the future of state and federal policies to support SAF and other renewable-energy projects remains in flux, Ryan said Delta and other airlines are committed to replacing fossil-based fuel with SAF -- with or without policy support.

"If you look at the Delta website, you can see their commitment to carbon neutrality and the importance that SAF is going to play there," he said.

"If you look at the whole SAF industry, it's projected to be 130 billion gallons by 2030. You know, 13 billion gallons is a huge opportunity. The catch is you've got to deliver the data to deliver the product they want, which is it's not like a little carbon reduction. This is a net-zero fuel."

Gevo also recently completed construction on a renewable natural gas project in northwest Iowa, connected to a 20,000-head dairy.

The RNG produced there will be sold to a pipeline and trucked to its new SAF plant in South Dakota.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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Todd Neeley