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Carinata plants grow in a field.

First in flight: Aviation industry looks to UGA research to lower carbon emissions

Note: This story is part of a special issue of The Warnell Log focused on carbon.

You can’t power a large, commercial jet with solar panels. Advances in hydrogen technology still can’t get a plane across the ocean.

So, if the aviation sector wants to reduce its carbon footprint, where do they turn? 


“Carbon in the aviation sector mostly comes from fuel, and this is why the industry wants to replace conventional aviation fuel, which mostly comes from petroleum, with sustainable aviation fuel,” said Puneet Dwivedi, an associate professor at Warnell who studies sustainability and biofuels. “That is why a lot of companies are very interested in producing sustainable aviation fuel, to reduce their carbon footprint as much as possible and, by 2050, be carbon neutral.”

Already, sustainable aviation fuel is in use. But companies are looking to increase supply, and the carinata plant is emerging as a possible solution.

The plant, a relative of mustard, produces seeds that can be ground and refined into oil. This oil, when refined, can be substituted for jet fuel.

Carinata is an interesting solution for many reasons. It’s a specialized crop that grows well in the winter, especially across southern states. This works well for farmers, who can grow carinata in the off season and not displace other crops. Also, carinata can act like a cover crop, providing nutrients that can be tilled back into the soil when it’s time for a new season—after the seeds have been harvested.

When it’s burned it emits CO2 emissions, but as more carinata is grown, it becomes part of the natural carbon cycle.

“Say you bought sustainable aviation fuel and the carbon goes up ito the atmosphere. If you’re in a continuous cycle, that carbon will come back as part of the crop next year—basically the caarbon becomes food for the crop,” said Dwivedi. “And that cycle continues, so your net carbon is zero—plus you’re getting the same service in terms of flying the plane.”

It’s a sustainable carbon solution that’s now unrolling into practice, as farmers across the South enter contracts to grow carinata this winter. The plan, said Dwivedi, is to harvest the seeds, crush them and send them to BP refineries in Texas where it will be produced into jet fuel.

Dwivedi’s research on sustainable aviation fuel helped propel these new market developments. “It’s very satisfying to see your research have an impact on a large scale,” he said.



Associate Professor, Sustainability Sciences

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