Sasol Makes World's First Synthetic Jet Fuel: Sasol, the South African Petrochemicals Company, Was Behind the World's First Passenger Aircraft Flight to Be Powered Using Internationally Approved 100% Synthetic Jet Fuel. Is It the Beginning of a New Age for the Aviation Industry in Its Quest for Cleaner Burning Alternative Fuels? Valerie Noury Discusses
Noury, Valerie, African Business
In September, the Boeing 737 chartered from South Africa's National Airways Corporation (NAC) and powered entirely by Sasol's synthetic fuel, took off from Gauteng to Cape Town, covering a distance of 865 miles. In the process, it became the first passenger aircraft to make such a flight.
In 2008, Sasol's aircraft fuel became the first 100% synthetic fuel to be internationally approved for use on a commercial aircraft. This development represents significant progress for the airline industry, which is pledging to achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020 and reduce its emissions by 50% by 2050. This is further coupled with rising global energy demand that, according to the annual World Energy Outlook, will increase by 36% by 2035.
Other attempts, using blended fuel, have been made in the past. Last October, a Qatar Airways Airbus A340-600 became the first commercial aircraft to use a gas-to-liquid (GTL) blended fuel, produced by Shell, for a paid passenger flight between London and Doha. Commencing in 2012, Qatar Petroleum and Shell are expected to produce about 1m tons of GTL kerosene a year.
British Airways, in partnership with the Solena Group, plans to establish Europe's first sustainable jet-fuel plant and expects to use the low-carbon fuel to power part of its fleet from 2014. The new fuel will be derived from waste biomass and manufactured in a state-of-the-art facility that can convert a variety of waste materials, destined for landfill, into aviation fuel. The self-contained plant, likely to be sited in east London, will convert 500,000t of waste a year into over 70m litres of green jet fuel through a process that offers life-cycle greenhouse gas savings of up to 95% compared to fossil-fuel-derived jet kerosene.
In 2008, a biofuel blend was used for the first time on a commercial flight when a Virgin Atlantic plane flew from London to Amsterdam. The Boeing 747 used a 20% biofuel, 80% kerosene blend in one of its four engines. The use of a fully synthetic fuel for the first time makes Sasol's accomplishment distinct from previous attempts. Chief executive Pat Davies describes the group's advances in synthetic fuel technology as a clear step forward in bringing us "even closer to integrating viable alternate (sic) transportation fuel into the energy mix".
Sasol, formed by South Africa's former apartheid government to counter fuel supply threats because of economic sanctions, is today the world's largest producer of synthetic fuels from coal and natural gas, with operations in around 30 countries. The company started its activities in 1950, with the aim of producing oil from South Africa's coal reserves and so celebrates its 60th anniversary in conjunction with its triumphal flight. Its main plant in Secunda, about two hours east of Johannesburg, processes around 120,000t of coal daily, which is converted into a maximum of 160,000 barrels of fuel. It is the only commercial coal-to-liquid (CTL) plant in the world.
Sasol was privatised and listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1979 but the government maintains a 23.5% stake. Sasol's daily production satisfies approximately 30% of South Africa's transport fuel needs. The group's activities are diverse and include production of olefins and surfactants in the US, Germany, Italy and China, oil in Gabon, natural gas in Mozambique and polymers in Iran.
Sasol's synthetic fuel is made by a CTL process, based on the Fischer-Tropsch conversion technique. This is a key technique in gas-to-liquids technology, permitting the creation of a petroleum substitute, typically from coal, natural gas or biomass, for use as a synthetic fuel. To make the fuel, the coal is first gasified and then turned into a liquid suitable for burning in a combustion engine.
The 2008 approval by ASTM International, the global standards body, and the UK's Ministry of Defence of the 100% CTL fuel in commercial aviation seems to be a natural progression for Sasol which, since 1999, has supplied the local industry with a 50% blend of CTL jet fuel. …