Electrification and Sustainability

GE Aviation CEO Talks Importance of SAF in Future of Aviation

By Kelsey Reichmann | June 24, 2021
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GE Aviation CEO John Slattery was the guest on the latest edition of Eurocontrol’s Straight Talk Live on Thursday. (GE Aviation)

GE Aviation and Safran recently unveiled a new development program focused on sustainable technologies for a next-generation CFM engine. During an appearance on EUROCONTROL’s Aviation StraightTalk Live, GE Aviation President and CEO John Slattery described why sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) were essential to making a sustainable aviation engine and what obstacles need to be overcome to increase their use.

“We announced RISE, which stands for revolutionary innovation for sustainable engines,” Slattery said. “It’s a development program that we will look at over 300 different technologies that we will develop. Eventually, that will manifest into an engine that will enter into service sometime in the mid-2030s, but a lot of those technologies…that we will be developing through the RISE program will probably end up feathering a lot of those technologies into our current engines and even engines that we may even introduce before 2030.”

Some of the technologies that will be part of RISE include hybrid-electric engines, SAF, and hydrogen. The RISE program is focused on reducing emissions and one way to do that is to change the type of fuel the engine is burning, Slattery said.

“What people get confused about is the difference between CO2 emissions and the fuel burn,” Slattery said. “If we can change the type of fuel that goes into the engine, we can reduce those emissions a lot more than the initial 20 percent we’re talking about.”

A big advantage to using SAF is that aircraft today do not need to be modified in any way to use a 50 percent blend of SAF. The current in-production engines developed by GE Aviation are certified to operate with a blend of up to a 50 percent blend of SAF.

To be able to use 100 percent SAF, some modifications to the aircraft engine will be necessary, but these modifications will be small, Slattery said.

“We’re working with regulators around the world to define what the standard is, the definition and the standard of what defines 100 percent SAF,” Slattery said. “When we get to agreeing that standard, there will be some small hardware modifications required on the engine but actually nothing meaningful, some work with the tubes and the ducks. The viscosity of SAF is different to the properties of kerosene, K1, but very doable.”

The problem is aircraft are not even using the 50 percent blend that is approved today. In reality, SAF accounted for less than one percent of the fuel used by airlines, according to 2019 data from IATA. The reason for this is there is not enough supply in the market yet. Slattery said if SAF were to be flown on the entire Air France KLM fleet for example, they would burn the world’s supply of SAF in one day.

“The big issue is getting availability of SAF… so the challenge on us is to create a stable demand so that industry can rally around and create the availability of SAF so that airlines can then get it at a more economical price,” Slattery said.

Slattery said he does think there is demand from airlines for SAF, however, regulators and policymakers may need to create incentives for generating SAF.

“I know the airlines want to do it…but the regulators, the policymakers, they may need to play a role here,” Slattery said. “As they look around encouraging incentives to help people generate SAF and SAF can come from a multitude of sources, including synthetic SAFs. If we bring up the supply, the price will come down and that supply-demand equation will help bring the price down, but regulators are also looking at potentially regulating the percentage of SAF that would need to be used onboard an aircraft.”

After lowering the price, the industry will also have to create a structure to make SAF more user-friendly, Slattery said.

“We do need an eco-structure to make it more user friendly to get SAF to the airports to actually generate SAF, to distill and refined SAF,” Slattery said. “We feel comfortable that it is all doable. Certainly, the refining parts of it is very doable. Frankly, with the current footprint of refineries that are out there today refining oil can very easily move over to SAF.”

There is also pressure from airline passengers about lowering emissions when they are flying which could also contribute to a demand for technologies like SAF, Slattery said.

“The travelers of the future, the passengers, who we are all here ultimately to serve, they want to know what their carbon emission per mile is going to be in the future,” Slattery said.

If GE were to reduce emissions by 20 percent on narrow-body aircraft types flying with its engines today, it would be equivalent to taking 17 million cars off the road, Slattery said. However, the goal of the RISE program is to cut emissions by using a hybrid-electric engine with an open fan architecture and the capability to burn 100 percent SAF or hydrogen fuel.

“To get to that nirvana of carbon-free emissions, zero carbon-free flight, we’re going to need to have improved fuels,” Slattery said. “We’re going to need to have sustainable aviation fuels in a volume that will make sense for the operators around the world and then we need to stay on that path to get to ultimately to find a way to burn green hydrogen.”

Slattery said the aviation industry’s growth is dependent on adopting and developing these new technologies to drive down emissions.

“We’re at an inflection point in our industry,” Slattery said. “We need to win the right to continue to grow and that’s going to be rooted, in my humble opinion, in our commitment to drive down CO2 emissions.”

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