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For aviation to reach net zero emissions is a real challenge – and the path ahead is laden with speed bumps.

The most frequent complaint about SAF is the lack of availability in the market, an issue which will not be helped by the apparent failure of Fulcrum BioEnergy.

Fulcrum burst onto the scene with a plan to make fuel out of landfill waste. In 2014, it signed a deal with Cathay Pacific for 1.1m tonnes of SAF over 10 years, with delivery starting this year.

Fulcrum also enjoyed investment from United Airlines in 2015, and signed a deal with the carrier for 15 million gallons.

It expanded overseas, winning a £20m grant from the UK’s transport department to develop a waste-to-fuels plant in the UK, dubbed Northpoint.

Now, according to Companies House, the UK arm is just about solvent. However, Fulcrum’s US website no longer functions, and The Loadstar is still awaiting a call back from the UK operation.

Fulcrum’s latest UK annual report shows the UK arm “solely dependent” on its US parent, which has to “secure additional debt or equity financing”. It said this “raises substantial doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern…”.

Neither Cathay nor United responded to requests for comment.

However, sources at the company in the US told media Fulcrum BioEnergy laid-off most of its staff last month and shut down its flagship plant in Reno, Nevada, which only opened in late 2022. The plant made synthetic crude oil, which created transport fuel with a CO2 footprint of less than 20% of fossil fuel. It was meant to produce 42m litres a year of the first commercial-scale landfill-waste-to-fuel.

A former employee blamed poor management, but Fulcrum, which had raised some $467m as of June 2023, also struggled to get permits and had operational issues. A major south Korean investor also pulled out after seeing no profit.

Chemical & Engineering News revealed that waste-to-fuel has had a difficult time. UK Teeside-based Air Products and Chemicals declared a loss of $1bn in 2016, and this year Enerkem shut its plant in Edmonton, Canada, owing to market and regulatory conditions.

However, there is still hope: Enerkem is building a plant near Montreal that can make 125m litres of biofuel a year from 200,000 tonnes of waste, when it starts in 2025.

And, as one door closes, another one opens: yesterday, Swiss WorldCargo announced it could offer customers a 20% CO2 removal option using ‘direct air capture’ (DAC). A further 80% of emissions can be removed by using SAF.

Swiss said it had launched a pilot scheme to integrate carbon removal on to its Green Choice service. Provided by compatriot ClimeWorks, DAC technology can capture CO2 from the air, which can then be stored permanently underground.

“The airline sector will need to take advantage of both DAC and further negative-emission technologies if it is to achieve its ambitious carbon emission mitigation goals,” said Swiss  WorldCargo. “Climeworks operates the world’s two biggest DAC and storage facilities, in Iceland, and has extensive growth plans,” it added.

DAC technology can also offer a scalable process by which to capture atmospheric CO2 for use as a raw material in manufacturing synthetic fuels, or SAF.

Swiss added that its customers could now “not only help the scaling-up of critical tech to reach net zero in aviation, but also act on reaching their Scope 3 emission reduction targets”.

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