Southwest Airlines announced today an investment into SAFFiRE Renewables, a new company aimed at piloting and commercializing technology for the production of low-cost sustainable aviation fuel.

SAFFiRE (short for Sustainable Aviation Fuel From Renewable Ethanol) was formed by ethanol technology company D3MAX, and backed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as part of a project aimed at decreasing transportation-based emissions through the development of advanced biofuels technology.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is seen as one of the key tools to help decarbonize the aviation industry, which currently accounts for 2-3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. SAF is generally produced from sustainable resources, like waste oils and agricultural residues. SAFFiRE aims to utilize technology developed by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to generate SAF from corn stover, a widely available waste feedstock.

According to the DOE, SAF produced using this technology is expected to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions relative to fossil fuels by up to 84%.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk said:

“The Department of Energy is committed to turning our ambitious aviation decarbonization goals into realities through strong partnerships across the airline industry. Moving cutting-edge technology advances in sustainable aviation to production scale will save money, reduce carbon emissions, and reshape the future of the airline travel for the benefit of American consumers.”

Last year, the DOE awarded D3MAX the only pilot-scale grant for SAF production, with a goal to scale technology that could commercialize SAF. Southwest announced that it is matching the DOE’s grant to support the first phase of the project, which is expected to include technology validation, preliminary design, and a business plan for a pilot plant.

Bob Jordan, Chief Executive Officer at Southwest, said:

“This first-of-its-kind investment is another step we are taking to address our environmental impact, and it also supports our efforts to partner with organizations and government entities to help our industry reach the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.”

The facility will produce 10 tonnes of ethanol per day from corn stover, which will be upgraded by sustainable fuel technology and production company LanzaJet into SAF.

According to the DOE, the technology is expected to be able to produce SAF at a Minimum Fuel Selling Price (MFSP) of $2.75/gallon, well below that of traditional jet fuel. SAFFiRE has set a goal to achieve annual SAF production capacity of over 7 billion gallons by 2040.

Mark Yancey, CEO of SAFFiRE, said:

“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.”