From Slaughter to Sky: Beef Fat Converted to Jet Fuel

GYPSUM, Colo. (AP) — It’s incongruous to attach a hose to the shiny wing of the futuristic $2 million Cirrus Vision Jet, under the rapidly clearing skies of another glorious day in the highlands at the Eagle County Regional Airport, then all that on the plane with the liquid by-products of McRibs and flank steak.

But the modern era sometimes comes to the sound of strange hoofbeats.

Dr. Joel Matta’s beloved Cirrus seven-seater is an early adopter of “sustainable aviation fuel”, which in Eagle County’s case includes a high percentage of beef tallow and arrived in March to start reducing the busy airport’s carbon footprint.

The tallow fuel used by the Vail Valley Jet Center here is advertised to reduce the carbon output of private or commercial jet flights by 25%, burning cleaner than non-bovine fuel sources. The blend is 30% fat-derived biofuel and 70% traditional jet kerosene. And it’s now being marketed by the Jet Service Center from a tanker screaming durability ads, parked near the tarmac for Vail flyers to see.

RMI experts and other analysts say the increasing use of sustainable aviation fuels, whether made from tallow or other renewable feedstocks, is key to reducing greenhouse gases d an industry that represents 3 to 9% of global emissions. Aviation is considered a stubborn carbon industry – to date, no other energy source has the necessary power-to-weight ratio of jet fuel to get heavy planes off the ground. Battery-powered electric planes are being developed, but widespread adoption is at least a decade away, experts believe.

Meanwhile, big companies like United Airlines and owners of private business jets are under intense pressure to do more for the environment. When they hear a fuel is available that can reduce the lifetime carbon footprint by 25% — a conservative estimate, according to RMI — they want it straight into the veins of their planes, said Vail chief executive Paul Gordon. Valley Jet Center.

They contact in-flight support centers and say, “Look, we want to buy sustainable aviation fuel every time we fly. How can we accomplish this? Gordon said, watching his crew on the tarmac load the Cirrus with the sustainable fuel.

Aviation and decarbonization experts have heard all the Big Mac jokes about tallow fuel, but are adamant that innovative fuel technology is crucial to reducing greenhouse gases as the Global travel demand is rebounding above pre-pandemic levels.

“We believe that sustainable aviation fuel will play a really major role in kick-starting the decarbonization of the aviation sector, and is basically the only tool we have in our arsenal” before electrification becomes commercially viable. around 2030 to 2035, said RMI’s Laura Hutchinson, an aviation expert and head of the nonprofit institute’s Climate-Aligned Industries section.

Other forms of sustainable aviation fuel are refined from sawmill waste, used cooking oil, algae, municipal and agricultural wastewater, etc. Promising future technology, Hutchinson said, includes capturing carbon to refine it into hydrocarbons using clean energy. This will reduce cracking in oversized fries, although suet is a perfectly legitimate and highly technical solution, she said.

It can be difficult, she acknowledged, explaining to jet pilots or environmental groups or journalists how something like beef tallow reduces carbon the moment it’s thrown into the back of a gas engine. reaction at 500 miles per hour.

“One of the hardest things about it from a narrative perspective is that all the environmental benefits are in a life cycle logic,” she said.

This means: when it burns, the carbon production is the same as that of kerosene.

But all it has taken so far – well to wake up in their parlance – has produced less carbon than conventional fossil fuel extraction and refining. Beef fat, for example, would otherwise have been wasted. By replacing 30% or more of the fossil fuel with waste, the carbon footprint is deemed significantly lower by the UN and other international bodies responsible for the calculations.

Hamburger aid isn’t cheap, though. Gordon estimates that sustainable fuel adds about $1.10 to the current $6-7 per gallon price of traditional aviation fuel. While commercial airlines like United are moving quickly to lock in as much sustainable alternative supply as they can find, adoption in a new area like Eagle County Airport is starting slowly.

The jet center sold about 1,000 gallons of sustainable fuel in its first month, Gordon estimates, out of one million gallons per month of overall fuel usage during the busy ski season months.

From mid to late April, the commercial flight schedule from United, American and other cities like Dallas or New York slowed down a bit. But the Eagle County tarmac is littered with private jets from South America, with about 80% of Mexican vacationer flights over the Easter holiday, Gordon said.

Signature Aviation, owner of the jet center, pumps 1,000 gallons at a time when refueling large commercial flights. Private jets may only take 50 to a few hundred gallons when stationary, for tanks of a few thousand gallons.

Matta’s Cirrus only needed about 20 gallons. An orthopedic surgeon and pilot, Matta flies the sleek jet himself for lectures and surgical consultations. The Cirrus not only has a range of 1,200 miles, but it comes with its own reserve parachute and “safe return” autopilot programming should Matta have a medical condition.

The compact Cirrus is a favorite among ground crews, full of cool tech and with easy access to wing fuel ports. Line Service Technician Nicola Oliveira and Line Operations Manager Dwayne Noriega are happy to chat with the various drivers and passengers who see the decorated tanker and have questions.

“It’s going to take a long time to match the actual jet fuel sold,” Oliveira said. “But it’s a good thing.”

The jet center and parent company Signature Aviation, which bought the repairer in December, have other plans to green the airport. Gordon explores empty areas on the plateau between Gypsum and Eagle that could accommodate a solar panel farm for the airport’s electrical needs. The Cirrus was moved onto the tarmac by one of the few clean electric tugs the jet center added.

Matta is willing to try tallow fuel, as long as the engine manufacturer accepts the renders as real. (They do, according to RMI.)

“I don’t want to void my warranty,” Matta said.

As for the environmental benefits, Matta does not claim a bullhorn on climate change. He sees the primary benefit of alternative fuels for aviation as preserving a limited supply of fossil fuels for other uses.

Matta said he was among those who needed more convincing that shortening has a carbon lifecycle advantage over kerosene.

“I don’t understand,” Matta said.

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