Newswise — Aviation experts from the University of South Australia (UniSA) will work with their Chinese counterparts over the next two years to develop a sustainable aviation biofuel industry in both countries.

The collaboration, announced by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), comes on the back of a $1.7 billion Federal Budget allocation to prioritise renewable fuels for the aviation industry over the next decade.

UniSA Aviation Professor Shane Zhang has been awarded a $230,000 National Foundation for Australia-China Relations grant to lead the project, exploring the commercial opportunities of using bio feedstock to replace conventional kerosene jet fuels with ‘green’ fuel.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are still in their infancy, accounting for less than 1% of jet fuels worldwide, although the European Union (EU), Singapore, the US and UK are moving towards mandating SAFs within the next few years.

Prof Zhang says the Federal Government budget announcement follows the establishment of the Australia Jet Zero Council in 2023 to deliver net-zero aviation in Australia, supported by a $30 million funding injection.

“Sustainable aviation fuels can potentially cut carbon emissions by up to 80% and are essential if we are to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in Australia 2050,” Prof Zhang says.

The alternative liquid jet fuel is derived from several sources or feedstock, including waste oil and fats, woody residues, algae and municipal waste. It needs to be mixed with conventional fuel (50%) to avoid any modifications to the engine and aircraft, in line with international regulations.

While these renewable fuels are not yet produced in Australia, Jet Zero Australia is working with US biotechnology company LanzaJet to build a new SAF facility in north Queensland, and Wagner Sustainable Fuels and Boeing Australia are also collaborating on a site in Toowoomba. The NSW Government has pledged up to $100 million to start local production.

Aside from the $1.7 billion, the Albanese Government has also allocated $18.5 million over four years to develop a certification scheme for sustainable aviation fuels and renewable diesel. A further $1.5 million will go towards a two-year analysis of the costs and benefits of introducing mandates.

“There is a lot of potential to produce sustainable aviation fuels in Australia and China, as both countries have large quantities of bio feedstock and the market is untapped,” Prof Zhang says.

“Australia is among a handful of countries globally to support the transition to SAFs, but the financial commitment to develop a local industry does not extend to a mandate at this stage.”

This contrasts with the EU, which has mandated that 2% of all departing flights from Europe will use green fuels by 2025, up to 70% by 2050. Singapore has also set a 1% SAF target for all departing airlines from 2026, increasing to 3-5% by 2030, and the UK has mandated that 10% of its airline fleet use SAFs by 2030, increasing to 22% by 2024.

Airservices Australia has set a target of reducing CO2 emissions per flight by an average of 10% by 2030. Globally, aviation accounts for approximately 3% of global emissions, but this could rise to 22% by 2050 as more people fly and other sectors decarbonise more quickly, Prof Zhang says.

“Unlike ground transportation, there are limited alternative fuel options for the aviation sector. Sustainable fuels are one of them, but they are up to five times more expensive than traditional fuel and airlines are reluctant to invest in them until they become cheaper and more readily available.

“Likewise, biotechnology companies need a guaranteed market from airlines before they commit to developing SAFs, so the hesitation runs both ways.”

Prof Zhang and his Chinese colleagues will organise and develop eight events in Australia and China over the next two years, bringing industry, farmers and stakeholders together to look at how sustainable aviation fuels can be commercialised.

“The technology is ready and mature, and the Federal Government has sent a clear signal about its support for greener aviation fuels. We just need to overcome the challenges and find the right path,” Prof Zhang says.