Velocys to Launch Two Plants to Make Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Oxford-based Velocys is gearing up to launch two plants to enable production of net-zero sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from municipal solid waste (MSW), commercial and industrial waste, and woody biomass residue. In the tech company’s eyes, leveraging these feedstocks is a way to scale faster in the race to decarbonize aviation.

Arlene Karidis, Freelance writer

September 11, 2023

5 Min Read
sustainable aviation fuel
Scharfsinn / Alamy Stock Photo

Oxford-based Velocys is gearing up to launch two plants to enable production of net-zero sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from municipal solid waste (MSW), commercial and industrial waste, and woody biomass residue.

In the tech company’s eyes, leveraging these feedstocks is a way to scale faster in the race to decarbonize aviation. One facility, the Altalto project, will operate in Immingham in the U.K.  The other, the Bayou Fuels project, will run in Mississippi.

SAF could achieve 65 percent of the carbon reduction needed for the aviation sector to reach a 2050 net-zero target, estimates the International Air Transport Association. But getting there will require substantial volumes of feedstock. The industry consumes a staggering 400 million tons of fuel a year.  Today’s SAF, made from biogenic oils, doesn’t exist in quantities to satiate this transportation sector’s appetite.

That’s the top driver to move beyond the first generation of cleaner jet fuel and turn to these waste products, which are abundant and cheap, says Neville Hargreaves, vice president Waste to Fuels Velocys.

Then there is the potential environmental impact. Depending on the feedstock, a conventional SAF plant will achieve a carbon reduction of 70 or 80 percent at most. Velocys says its process yields a 150% cut or better, translating to -50 to -60 grams CO2 per megajoule (mj) of fuel, Hargreaves says. Carbon-negative intensity is achieved not only by incorporating waste carbon in the product, but by sequestering some of it underground.

Velocys’ technology manages one part of a multi-step process.

Partner ThermoChem Recovery International (TRI) converts the solid waste feedstock into a syngas. Velocys in turn converts the syngas to fuels via FischerTropsch, involving chemical reactions.

MSW is perhaps the most challenging waste feedstock due to the quantity and diversity of contaminants, even after it has been sorted, says Dan Burciaga, president and CEO ThermoChem.

“TRI’s steam reforming technology is tolerant of dramatic swings in the characteristics (calorific value) of the waste-based feedstock and in the contaminant load.  Our technology absorbs these variations to produce a uniform syngas, which is necessary for the downstream operations,” he says.

Each technology is proven at a commercial scale with other feedstocks. But combining them for end-to-end conversion of waste to fuel is a first.

Velocys’ role in the Immingham, U.K. and Mississippi projects is to provide an integrated technology solution; develop the projects; bring them to fruition; then step back. The idea is to serve only as a technology licensor in time.

“The world needs several hundred plants to meet its need for SAF. We could not possibly develop and operate all of them, so our intention is to enable the technology and for others to run the plants. We are kickstarting the process by doing two of our own,” Hargreaves says.

But Velocys plans to build plenty more reactors from a recently constructed facility in Columbus, Ohio. The site will significantly scale up the company’s assembly capabilities, with a capacity to produce 12 reactors a year.

In an earlier day, Velocys made fuel from landfill gas. But the U.S. renewable natural gas market took a turn, favoring vehicles as end-use applications, motivating the shift to solid waste feedstocks. The tech developer expects the newer model to pay off, as it will offer an alternative disposal method to landfilling and to mass burning. Hargreaves thinks it’s a better alternative.

“We are displacing fossil fuel while putting waste to use in one of the hardest sectors to decarbonize. We are essentially enabling a new generation of SAF with deep carbonization capabilities and available in quantity because there is plenty of feedstock,” he says.

The Altalto plant will convert half a million tons of municipal and commercial waste to fuels from one of the largest cargo ports in the U.K. That project is currently in the front-end engineering design phase. A final investment decision, where capital is committed for construction, is slated for 2025, and full commercial operation is expected in 2028.

The Bayou Fuels facility in Natchez, Mississippi will take forest waste that can’t be used for other applications, and there’s plenty of material, opening opportunity to scale.  The project will have 50% greater output than Altalto.

Velocys has not yet said who will operate either plant though has announced other big news: in the U.S., Southwest Airlines and International Airlines Group have signed on as offtakers. And Bechtel is a lead partner in the U.K., taking on the front-end engineering design work for the Altalto project.

Cost continues to be a barrier to rapid adoption of SAF. The product is more expensive to make than jet fuel. Creating SAF from waste specifically entails more chemical transformation and is energy intensive.  

Policy work and incentives aim to make these projects more feasible.

The British government has proposed a SAF mandate to help advance technologies and has put in place a £165 million grant ($206.01 million) to support early work.  Velocys secured £27 million ($33.71 million)  from that allowance.

In the U.S., the Inflation Reduction Act is stimulating activity. It offers a production tax credit specifically for SAF, with the value increasing in proportion to carbon reductions.

Asia too has joined efforts to accelerate adoption of cleaner jet fuels.

“So, we are seeing around the world a recognition that SAF is the way to decarbonize aviation. Waste conversion is an important way to make SAF because high volumes of feedstock are available,” Hargreaves says.

“How this industry shakes out will depend on ongoing legislation and commercial developments. There will be many different players, and we see a large growth market for the whole SAF industry.”

About the Author(s)

Arlene Karidis

Freelance writer, Waste360

Arlene Karidis has 30 years’ cumulative experience reporting on health and environmental topics for B2B and consumer publications of a global, national and/or regional reach, including Waste360, Washington Post, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Baltimore Sun and lifestyle and parenting magazines. In between her assignments, Arlene does yoga, Pilates, takes long walks, and works her body in other ways that won’t bang up her somewhat challenged knees; drinks wine;  hangs with her family and other good friends and on really slow weekends, entertains herself watching her cat get happy on catnip and play with new toys.

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