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BLOG: Redefining refineries to power the aircraft of tomorrow


In 2019, the UK became the first major economy to put Net Zero carbon emissions into legislation, writes Atkins’ James Domone and Matt Wills.

Aviation currently accounts for 12% of emissions from transport sources (with road vehicles amounting to 74%), and 2% of all global emissions.

Refining accounts for 40% of the Green House Gas emissions from the oil and gas supply chain and 6% of global industrial emissions.

Refining faces its biggest transition challenge to produce sustainable fuels, new low carbon technology, carbon capture and storage, and the global weaning off fossil fuels.

As the transition challenge ramps up, by 2030 14% of current refineries operating in advanced economies face the risk of either being used far less or closing down. By 2050, this could grow to 50%. To remain economically viable, refineries that produce gasoline, diesel, aviation kerosene, and fuel oils, and production methods must be redefined.

Refineries must adapt to a decarbonising world, and aviation has a responsibility to dictate its future demands in time to assist the refineries’ development and survival.

The future of flight

Jet aircraft today are over 80% more efficient than those used in the 1960s and are continuing to improve to meet future climate targets.

These targets include: improving fleet fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% each year; capping net carbon emissions from international aviation to 2020 levels through carbon neutral growth; and aiming to halve net aviation carbon emissions by 2050.

Alternative fuels, particularly sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), have been identified as critical to achieve these goals. SAF-derived sources such as algae, jatropha, or waste by-products have been shown to reduce the carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80% over their full lifecycle.

Aviation continues to evolve and push limits to improve aircraft efficiency, but more radical step changes are needed to meet global carbon reduction targets.

Fortunately, SAF can provide this step change with existing aircraft and those currently on the order books of the large aircraft manufacturers with little to no change to the aircraft themselves. Certification pathways exist for several fuels and are already in use, albeit in very small quantities.

The responsible ones

New technologies that push closer towards a complete Net Zero future, such as electrification and hydrogen fuel, are also being investigated. As these developments evolve, the aviation industry must clearly dictate future fuel type requirements.

For energy and fuel supply industries to provide not only what, but also where and when, they must ascertain how refineries can be retrofitted or redesigned to produce future fuels. This responsibility is fourfold:

  1. Aviation must clearly define its fuel requirements including fuel types, forecast growth rates and locations of use
  2. Additional SAF pathways need to be certified; this hasn’t taken place for some of the newest fuels and is currently seen to be a lengthy process which could be reduced
  3. There should be a shift in onus onto fuel producers to make sure they’re producing enough now, and in the future
  4. Refineries and existing sites need to be adapted to low carbon multi-unit plants.

With the ability to take in a wide range of feedstocks and flexibility over processing to products, an adapted refinery could provide lower-risk economics, and greater economy of scale.

It would convert a variety of feedstocks to a pyro-oil or syngas – both of which are well understood and tried intermediates for petroleum and chemical industries.

While additional units would be required to process feedstocks to treated syngas and pyro-oils, the infrastructure and utilities are in place at existing refineries, as is the pipeline network supplying aircraft fuels to UK airports.

The safe transportation of SAFs could include their introduction and yearly percentage increase into this pipeline network, to steadily dilute fossil-based fuels over the next 29 years.

However, it could take from 6 to 7 years to plan, design, build and commission the SAF units on refineries. If 2030 is the aspirational horizon, then project lifecycles need to begin now, and both industries cannot afford to wait.

Clearing the air

Aviation and refining industries are not commonly perceived as friends of the environment. A global pandemic aside, the aviation industry is set to expand exponentially, especially in Asia Pacific.

Air travel is becoming cheaper, with improved energy efficiency, and fundamentally, it is the only way to travel long distance.

Certainly, once national restrictions are eased, the desire to travel further than the living room or local park will be too strong to resist. Furthermore, if it can be made a ‘greener’ way to travel, improved public perception will likely lead to even further uptake.

By setting out pathways and future projections of fuels, aviation and refining can mutually support their fit into a decarbonising world. This will also extend to the power sector in regard to supplying electricity for battery-powered propulsion technologies and hydrogen fuel production for smaller aircraft.

The future of refineries is under pressure as countries progress on their journey towards a Net Zero planet and the goal of a low carbon society. However, society and industry will still need their expertise, and the products and chemicals they produce.

The task of reassessing their role, adapting them to a decarbonising world, showing their worth to industry and remaining economically viable, is one for aviation and refining to handle together.

About the authors
James Domone (senior engineer) and Matt Wills (studies and engineering manager) both work for Atkins. The multi-national company, which is part of the SNC-Lavalin Group, specialises in engineering, design, planning, architectural design, project management and consulting services.

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