Travel and Tourism

Jet engines could soon be fuelled by… a common weed

The use of SAF, with its low carbon intensity scores, is a crucial component of the industry's commitment to reduce emissions and achieve carbon-neutral growth.

The use of SAF, with its low carbon intensity scores, is a crucial component of the industry's commitment to reduce emissions and achieve carbon-neutral growth. Image: Unsplash/ramonkagie

Gabi Thesing
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • The humble field pennycress, a member of the Brassica family that has historically been regarded as a weed, could soon be fuelling jet engines.
  • After extensive breeding and genetic engineering efforts, this plant is now being cultivated as a promising source of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Aviation Challenge is inviting innovators to come forward with more solutions to decarbonize aviation.

The aviation industry is under increasing pressure to reduce its carbon emissions and find sustainable alternatives to traditional jet fuel. Enter… field pennycress, a member of the Brassica family that has historically been regarded as a weed.

After extensive breeding and genetic engineering efforts, this plant – renamed CoverCress – is now being cultivated as a promising source of renewable diesel and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

From field to fuel

“The oil derived from a CoverCress crop is ideally suited as a new bioenergy feedstock for the production of … SAF, renewable diesel, biodiesel and other value-added coproducts,” according to a US study, published in Frontiers in Energy Research.

Using the crop to produce biodiesel and renewable jet fuel, the study found that it reduced greenhouse gas emissions by up to 85% and 63% respectively, compared to producing petroleum-based fuels.

Commercial aviation is responsible for more than 13% of global transportation emissions, so efforts to develop sustainable alternative fuels — both for aviation and other forms of transport — are vital in global efforts to limit climate change.

The use of SAF, with its low carbon intensity scores, is a crucial component of the industry's commitment to reduce emissions and achieve carbon-neutral growth.

And CoverCress is potentially a viable option to meet these goals.

Figure illustrating the state of sustainable aviation fuel in 2023.
SAF could contribute around 65% of the reduction in emissions needed by aviation to reach net-zero in 2050. Image: IATA

Embracing sustainable aviation fuels

In their pursuit of mitigating aviation emissions, the First Movers Coalition (FMC) aviation members – who partner with the World Economic Forum – have pledged to embrace emissions reduction technologies, notably SAF. These fuels possess the potential to substantially contribute – up to 65% – toward the pivotal goal of achieving net-zero aviation emissions by 2050.

While SAF prices are currently twice that of fossil jet fuel due to factors like feedstock costs, blending and safety testing, economies of scale are anticipated to lower SAF costs, positioning them as a crucial tool in aviation's decarbonization journey, according to the FMC’s Sustainable Aviation Fuels: Offtake Manual report.

The demand for sustainable fuels has underscored concerns about potential global food shortages, particularly due to the utilization of biofuels derived mainly from corn and soybeans. To address this challenge, researchers are redirecting their focus towards non-edible crops like CoverCress to produce low-carbon fuels without competing with vital food sources.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to reduce aviation's carbon footprint?

Need to scale-up production of SAFs


In the broader context of sustainability, biofuels, encompassing those derived from cover crops, hold significant appeal, particularly within the aviation sector. However, the realization of their potential impact remains in its nascent stages. SAF has much ground to cover before achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. As of 2022, just 450,000 commercial flights have used SAF, according to the International Air Transport Association.

The UpLink’s Sustainable Aviation Challenge is inviting innovators to come forward with more solutions to decarbonize aviation and accelerate novel technology pathways. These can include sustainable fuels, propulsion technologies and value chain innovations like feedstock, engineering, infrastructure and market development. Find out more here.

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