First U.S. sustainable aviation fuel plant opens in Georgia

Vilsack hails world's first ethanol-to-SAF production facility as “significant step forward.”

Krissa Welshans, Livestock Editor

January 25, 2024

5 Min Read

What was, at one time, conceived to be impossible now has been proven as possible, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week while attending the grand opening of the first sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) plant in the United States. On Jan. 24, LanzaJet, a leading sustainable fuels technology company and sustainable fuels producer, joined government officials, industry leaders, partners, and supporters to open LanzaJet Freedom Pines Fuels, the world's first ethanol-to-SAF production facility, in Soperton, Georgia. The plant is projected to produce 10 million gallons of SAF and renewable diesel per year from ethanol.

LanzaJet's technology is recognized as the pioneering ethanol-to-SAF production process and pathway. The ethanol-based technology is the world's first viable next-generation SAF technology capable of scaling production to the levels needed to decarbonize aviation through widely available and sustainable feedstock, emerging commercial waste-based feedstock solutions, and promising economic conditions.

"Today is testament to the conviction required by industry, government, and funders to advance innovation and stretch the boundaries of what is achievable to address decarbonization and tackle climate change. This is a historic milestone in a long history of firsts for LanzaJet, the United States, and the SAF industry globally," said LanzaJet chief executive officer Jimmy Samartzis. "Our novel LanzaJet ethanol-to-SAF process technology is now deployed at our commercial plant in Georgia, which will convert ethanol into drop-in SAF.”

As production starts up, the company will continue to refine its technology while launching efforts to advance new sustainable fuel projects globally, Samartzis added.

“At the end of the day, if we’re really to mitigate the consequences of a changing climate, the transportation sector clearly has to get to a net zero future. In order for it to get to a net zero future, aviation has to get there as well, and it can’t get there without a sustainable aviation fuel. So, this is a day to celebrate a very significant step forward,” Vilsack noted during his remarks.

In addition to the environmental benefits the plant will provide, Vilsack celebrated what the plant means for farmers and rural communities nationwide. The project, he said, “provides a ray of hope” to reverse the trend of an alarming rate of U.S. farms and rural businesses going out of business. “This is about creating the opportunity for folks to do what they love to do and to pass it on to the next generation and, in doing so, preserve and protect a value system that critically important to our national security and to our very essence.”

If things go as planned, Vilsack said there could be plants similar to LanzaJet’s all across the nation, generating a lot of demand for the feedstock needed to produce the ethanol. “There need to be, and ought to be, multiple feedstocks in order for this market opportunity to be available all over the United States, not just in one or two regions of the country.”

The Iowa Corn Promotion Board urged farmers, specifically in Iowa, to not miss an opportunity to participate in something that “could grow the largest new market ever seen for U.S. farm commodities.”

“No Iowa ethanol plant currently has a carbon intensity score low enough to qualify as a SAF feedstock. Only one plant in the U.S., using carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), is currently producing SAF-friendly ethanol,” the association said. “By contrast, Brazil produces over 7 billion gallons of ethanol with a carbon score expected to qualify for SAF production.”

Monte Shaw, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association executive director, who traveled to Georgia to witness the LanzaJet grand opening, said American farmers and ethanol producers are losing demand until CCS is online.

“LanzaJet is proving that SAF from ethanol is here today. Now it is up to us to produce a qualifying ethanol feedstock. Iowans need to realize that CCS is the key to the new market. Regardless of individual views on carbon policy, our business is making the products our customers want, and right now we can’t do that,” Shaw said.

The new SAF market is potentially massive, according to a new study by Decision Innovation Solutions (DIS), an Iowa agricultural economic firm. The study found fully maximizing the potential of the SAF production in Iowa alone would have a generation impact. To meet the demand, DIS is projecting that Iowa would build:

  • 11 new 200 million-gallon-per-year ethanol plants;

  • Five new ethanol-to-jet SAF production facilities, and

  • Three new facilities that convert soybean oil, fats, and greases to SAF.

“The construction and ongoing operations of these facilities hold the promise to fundamentally transform rural Iowa in ways even bigger than the current biofuels industry,” stated David Miller, DIS chief economist and report author. “We have the opportunity to set the stage for the next 25 years, when corn production will rise to 20-21 billion bushels per year based on current acres. No other market but SAF can utilize that corn. If we do not embrace low-carbon ethanol to unlock SAF, we are likely to lose 20 million acres of corn across the Midwest and the $10 billion in farm income those acres create. What will our legacy be?”

According to Miller, SAF production in the U.S. is happening at “just the right time” as the combined economic impact of constructing and operating the expected SAF infrastructure is like nothing the Midwest has ever seen.

“U.S. corn production is growing at four times the rate that demand is growing. Over the next 20 years, U.S. farmers are looking at producing 5 billion excess bushels of corn from existing acres. Add to that the increase of electric vehicles that reduce ethanol use and the rise of Brazilian corn production, and it’s not hard to see that we could be in for some tough times,” he explained.

Shaw concluded: “We are not in a status quo situation. Only the fourth year of a drought has put off the day of reckoning this long, and even with the long drought, we’ve seen corn prices drop two bucks a bushel. The power is in our hands to unlock the massive SAF market. We urge all Iowans to allow farmers and ethanol producers the tools they need to move our great state forward to a time of unprecedented economic prosperity.”

About the Author(s)

Krissa Welshans

Livestock Editor

Krissa Welshans grew up on a crop farm and cow-calf operation in Marlette, Michigan. Welshans earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Michigan State University and master’s degree in public policy from New England College. She and her husband Brock run a show cattle operation in Henrietta, Texas, where they reside with their son, Wynn.

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