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Sustainability-in-Tech : Plane Power From Farm Waste

International Airlines Group (IAG) has announced another “significant” investment in Nova Pangaea Technologies (NPT), a company that makes aviation fuel from non-food agricultural waste and wood residues.


International Airlines Group (IAG) is the parent company of Aer Lingus, British Airways, Iberia, Vueling and LEVEL, and Nova Pangaea Technologies (NPT) is a Teesside-based cleantech company whose biofuel-making technology offers IAG a pathway to the production of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

How Does NPT Make Aviation Fuel From Agricultural Waste And Wood Residue? 

At the moment, NPT’s technology can convert agricultural waste and wood residue feedstocks into second-generation bioethanol. This could be processed into fuel if NPT had the right production facility, which the investment from IAG will provide.

The process that NPT uses to turn waste and wood residue feedstocks into second-generation bioethanol using its REFNOVA® branded environmentally friendly process.

The process involves pouring agricultural waste like particle size reduced feedstock into a fluidisation vessel to neutralise alkali earth metals, then using a hot air dryer to remove excess moisture, before using high temperatures to extract the lignin component and vapourise the sugars. The vapourised sugars are then condensed into NOVASUGARS which can be fermented into bioethanol.

Investment Will Build A New Specialised Aviation Fuel Plant 

In addition to its $865 million commitment to SAF, IAG’s latest investment will progress the development of ‘NOVAONE’, NPTs first waste-to-fuel commercial-scale production facility. This will be the first of its kind in the UK and construction is expected to begin later this year, with the facility producing biofuels by 2025 (creating major employment opportunities in the North-East).

The Benefits 

For IAG, some of the main benefits of investing in NPT include:

– Securing a supply of SAF ahead of the introduction of the UK Government’s SAF mandate, which is expected to be introduced from 2025.

– Meeting its target of using target of one million tonnes of SAF by 2030. IAG was the first European airline group to commit to the use of 10 per cent SAF by 2030.

– Supporting the decarbonisation of its own and the other airlines in its group. IAG intends to be net zero by 2050.

Some of the main benefits of the widescale use of SAF in the aviation industry could be:

– Decarbonising by replacing the need for fossil fuel derived and synthetically created materials.

– Saving costs.

– Contributing towards a net-zero global economy.

– Maximising the use of unwanted and already farmed by-products rather than driving the need for more fossil fuels and contributing to climate change, i.e. minimising the impact of its consumption on the natural world.

– Having the ability to meet its own green targets and government green targets and mandates.

The Only Realistic Option For Long Haul Decarbonisation 

Luis Gallego, IAG’s CEO, said: “Sustainable Aviation Fuel is the only realistic option for long haul airlines to decarbonise, which is why investment in this area is so critical.” 

He also highlighted the commitment needed by saying “We are not just buying SAF, we are willing to invest in developing the industry, but we need governments in the UK and Europe to act now to encourage further investment.” 

A Transformational Milestone 

Sarah Ellerby, Chief Executive of Nova Pangaea Technologies, highlighted the importance of the investment by AIG in NPT and the new SAF plant, saying:

“This is a transformational milestone, and a real endorsement of the crucial work Nova Pangaea Technologies is doing” and that “Our facility will be the UK’s first commercial plant of its kind, and it will play a crucial role in decarbonising the aviation sector, as well as providing local employment opportunities”.

Electric Engines Still Some Way Off 

Aircraft using SAF is therefore probably the only good interim solution in the period between winding down on the use of fossil fuel engines and before the introduction of electric engines that are capable acting as suitable replacements, certainly for long haul.

The development of electric aircraft engines still has several significant challenges to overcome, e.g. issues like energy density, weight, charging infrastructure, regulation, certification, and economic factors are all substantial hurdles.

Smaller, short-range planes and urban air mobility solutions are making progress, with some small electric planes in operation and hybrid systems being explored.

However, the widescale introduction of fully electric engines in commercial long-haul aviation looks likely at least a couple of decades away. Battery technology needs to improve, and substantial investments in research, development, and infrastructure are required.

What Does This Mean For Your Organisation? 

With the aviation industry (a major fossil fuels customer and CO2 producer) needing to find an effective and sustainable way to decarbonise and still operate effectively, the fact that commercial electric engines are years away means something is urgently needed (particularity for long haul) in the meantime.

Government mandates and green targets are looming so it’s not surprising that IAG has been investing in an SAF producer (NPT) and has financed the building of a production plant. The SAF supply will give IAG the chance to start decarbonising its wider fleet as well as meeting its green targets, staying ahead of government mandates, and showing their green credentials and commitment.

The wide use of SAF would have many environmental benefits, e.g. maximising usage of natural waste products, reducing reliance on fossil fuels, cutting CO2 and emissions pollution, and more. With the input product being agricultural waste and a plants being built like the NPT one, this could make aviation fuel much more sustainable and could help in tackling the climate crisis before alternatives like clean electric commercial aircraft engines come along.