Southwest Airlines acquires SAFFiRE Renewables, boosting SAF access
Photo courtesy of SAFFiRE Renewables

Southwest Airlines acquires SAFFiRE Renewables, boosting SAF access

Southwest Airlines Co. has taken a significant step forward in its sustainability journey by acquiring SAFFiRE Renewables, LLC. This strategic move is part of the airline’s investment portfolio under its wholly-owned subsidiary, Southwest Airlines Renewable Ventures, LLC (SARV), which aims to secure scalable sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) sources.

Bob Jordan, president and CEO of Southwest Airlines, expressed his enthusiasm for the acquisition, stating, “This acquisition marks Southwest’s transition from investor to sole owner of SAFFiRE, expressing our confidence in SAFFiRE’s technology and its potential to advance our sustainability goals as well as the goals of the broader industry.” He emphasised that championing SAF is a key pillar of Southwest’s Nonstop to Net Zero plan, aiming for a more sustainable future for air travel.

SAFFiRE, which is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is at the forefront of developing renewable ethanol that can be upgraded into SAF. Utilising technology from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), SAFFiRE plans to convert corn stover, an abundant agricultural residue in the U.S., into renewable ethanol.

Southwest initially invested in SAFFiRE during the first phase of the pilot project in 2022. With this acquisition, SAFFiRE is expected to move forward with phase two of the project, which involves developing a pilot plant at Conestoga’s Arkalon Energy ethanol facility in Liberal, Kansas, U.S.A. The plant will initially process 10 tons of corn stover per day to produce renewable ethanol, which will then be converted into SAF by LanzaJet, Inc.

Tom Nealon, president of SARV and CEO of SAFFiRE, highlighted the importance of renewable ethanol in achieving high-volume, affordable SAF. “Renewable ethanol is an important feedstock to realizing high-volume, affordable SAF, which is a critical part of the journey to net zero carbon emissions,” said Nealon. “We are enthusiastic about the ethanol-to-SAF pathway and SAFFiRE’s potential ability to produce renewable ethanol at a scale that is economically viable.”

This acquisition comes on the heels of Southwest’s investment in LanzaJet, a SAF technology provider and producer with a patented ethanol-to-SAF technology and the world’s first ethanol-to-SAF commercial plant. Through these strategic investments, Southwest Airlines is reinforcing its commitment to sustainability and the transition to net-zero carbon emissions in the aviation industry.

According to SAFFiRE, 400 million wet tons per year of corn stover are left over after harvest each year in the U.S. Up to 50 gallons of SAF can be produced from one ton of dry corn stover. Assuming a 15% moisture content, approximately 340 million dry tons of corn stover can produce 17 billion gallons of SAF.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), SAF production tripled in 2023 to 600 million litres (158.5 million gallons), from 300 million litres (79.2 million gallons) in 2022, representing 0.2% of global jet fuel use.

The aviation industry’s net-zero carbon emissions target is focused on delivering maximum reduction in emissions at source, through the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), innovative new propulsion technologies, and other efficiency improvements (such as improvements to air traffic navigation).