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Poo-Powered Planes: Could Human Feces Be the Key to the Future of Aviation Fuel?

Exploring innovative options for sustainable jet fuels, companies are pushing boundaries and finding unconventional sources. Among them is Firefly Green Fuels, an aviation company in Gloucestershire, UK, who has developed an intriguing idea – jet fuel derived entirely from human waste. While sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has been explored previously, using sewage as a viable and abundant waste source is a fresh and compelling twist. Is this approach truly a glimpse into the future of air travel?

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

In the global fight against climate change, commercial aviation’s contribution of 2.5% to greenhouse gas emissions cannot be ignored. Although electric and hydrogen-powered planes offer hope, their practicality for long-haul flights remains a distant reality. Thus, the aviation industry has turned its focus to Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as a more viable and immediate solution. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), SAF has the potential to contribute up to 65% of the necessary emissions reduction for aviation to achieve net-zero by 2050.

During flight, SAF burns like traditional jet fuel, resulting in equivalent emissions. However, its significant advantage lies in its lower carbon footprint throughout its entire life cycle. Most SAF is derived from plants that once absorbed carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere while alive. Alternatively, in the case of sewage-based SAF, it is sourced from plants and food consumed by humans that pass through the digestive system. When SAF is burned, the previously absorbed CO2 is released into the atmosphere. In contrast, jet fuel derived from fossil fuels emits carbon that has been sequestered over long periods. The aviation industry can significantly reduce its net carbon emissions by leveraging SAF while working towards a sustainable future.

Leveraging Sewage as a Resource: Firefly’s Innovative Approach

Despite its abundance worldwide, sewage has remained an untapped resource in the realm of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Recognizing this missed opportunity, James Hygate, CEO of Firefly, believes that sewage can play a significant role in addressing the aviation industry’s environmental impact. Firefly, a spin-off from Green Fuels, a company involved in developing low-carbon fuels since the early 2000s, has ventured into the realm of jet fuel production using an unconventional ingredient: human waste.

Firefly employs a method called hydrothermal liquefaction, specifically suitable for wet waste, to convert sewage into a viable fuel. By subjecting it to high pressure and heat, the sewage is transformed into carbon-rich biochar, a powder that can be used as a crop fertilizer, as well as crude oil. Although production has thus far only occurred on a small scale in laboratory settings, early results are promising. Independent analyses conducted by researchers in universities across the EU and the US have found Firefly’s SAF to be nearly identical to standard fossil jet fuel. Furthermore, a life cycle analysis conducted by Cranfield University in the UK reveals that Firefly’s SAF boasts a 90% lower carbon footprint compared to conventional jet fuel.

Firefly’s innovative approach demonstrates the potential for sewage to become a valuable resource in the production of sustainable aviation fuel. By transforming waste into a high-value product, the company offers an environmentally beneficial solution that could significantly contribute to reducing the aviation industry’s carbon emissions and promoting a more sustainable future.

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