Southwest makes “first-of-its-kind” investment in DOE-backed SAF project

Southwest Airlines announced an investment into SAFFiRE Renewables, a company formed by D3MAX, backed by a Department of Energy project to develop and produce scalable, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). 

The announcement dubs the project as Southwest’s “first-of-its-kind” investment towards the support and development of “technology intended to commercialize sustainable aviation fuel,” according to a press statement released on June 1, 2022. 

The only “pilot-scale” grant for SAF production was awarded to D3MAX in 2021 by the DOE with the goal to scale up the technology that could allow for the commercialization of SAF, according to the statement. 

Southwest’s investment in SAFFiRE, which matches a funding grant awarded by the DOE, supports phase one of the project, which is expected to include technology validation, preliminary design, and a business plan for a pilot plant. 

With the backing of the DOE and Southwest Airlines (LUV), SAFFiRE looks to tap into technology instituted by the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to convert corn stover, an abundant source of feedstock waste in the United States, into renewable ethanol that then would be upgraded into SAF.  

The NREL estimates the production of significant quantities of cost competitive SAF would allow an 84% reduction in carbon intensity compared to conventional jet fuel on a lifecycle basis. 

Bob Jordan, chief executive officer at Southwest describes the technology behind the SAF project as a potential game-changer as the airline looks to develop its environmental sustainability initiatives. 

"SAF is critical for decarbonizing the aviation sector," said Jordan. "This is a unique opportunity to invest in what we believe could be game-changing technology that could facilitate the replacement of up to approximately five percent of our jet fuel with SAF by 2030, with the potential to significantly continue to scale beyond the decade.” 

In October 2021, the US low-cost airline set in motion an initiative to maintain its carbon neutral growth every year and reduce the intensity of its carbon emissions by “at least” 20% by 2030. During the same period the airline introduced the first US-based carbon offset option, designed for its customers to contribute towards compensating the airline’s carbon emissions. 

Jordan added: “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 Department of Energy is committed to turning our ambitious aviation decarbonization goals into realities through strong partnerships across the airline industry," said US Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk in the statement released by Southwest.  

The SAF project supports the federal government's climate strategy, which includes a target of three billion gallons of SAF by 2030 through the ‘SAF Grand Challenge’ – an initiative backed by US federal government agencies to develop and scale up new technologies for the commercial production of SAF. 

"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," added Turk. 

Commenting on Southwest’s investment into SAFFiRE Mark Yancey, CEO of SAFFiRE, said "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."

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