Southwest Airlines Invests in Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Cindy Zimmerman

Southwest Airlines has announced an investment in a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) pilot project supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Southwest is investing in SAFFiRE Renewables, a company formed by D3MAX, LLC (D3MAX), to develop and produce scalable, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Funded with a DOE grant matched by Southwest’s investment, SAFFiRE is expected to utilize technology developed by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to convert corn stover, a widely available waste feedstock in the U.S., into renewable ethanol that then would be upgraded into SAF.

In 2021, the DOE awarded D3MAX the only pilot-scale grant for SAF production, with a goal to scale technology that could commercialize SAF. According to NREL, this could produce significant quantities of cost-competitive SAF that could provide an 84 percent reduction in carbon intensity compared to conventional jet fuel on a lifecycle basis. Southwest’s match of the DOE’s grant supports phase one of the project, which is expected to include technology validation, preliminary design, and a business plan for a pilot plant.

If the pilot project is successful in validating the commercialization of this corn-stover-to-ethanol technology, DOE and Southwest would have the opportunity to fund a second phase investment where the renewable ethanol would be upgraded into SAF by LanzaJet at its biorefinery currently under construction in Soperton, Georgia.

“We are extremely excited to be working with Southwest Airlines—they will be a great investor,” said Mark Yancey, CEO of SAFFiRE. “SAFFiRE technology is expected to produce lower carbon SAF compared to conventional jet fuel on a lifecycle basis, which could become carbon negative with process improvements and carbon capture. If we are successful in developing and commercializing this technology, we project the technology can produce 7.5 billion gallons per year of SAF by 2040.”

The DOE grant was part of $64 million awarded in September 2021 for 22 projects focused on developing technologies and processes that produce low-cost, low-carbon biofuels. The second part of this “Scale-Up of Integrated Biorefineries” funding opportunity announcement (FOA) was announced by DOE this week, offering an additional $59 million to support the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge goal of three billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel annually by 2030 and 35 billion gallons annually by 2050.

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