Sustainable Aviation Research
NREL's sustainable aviation research aims to not only permanently lower the carbon intensity of flight but also fundamentally improve the carbon footprint, mobility, and resiliency of the entire aviation ecosystem.
A Holistic Approach to Aviation Decarbonization
New technologies are changing the future of aviation by providing actionable pathways for lowering greenhouse gas emissions in a sector that is among the most difficult to decarbonize.
NREL has instituted a comprehensive, coordinated sustainable aviation strategy that paves the way for research, development, demonstration, and deployment—leading to solutions for decarbonizing aviation.
Addressing All Energy Aspects of Sustainable Aviation
NREL is uniquely positioned to develop decarbonization solutions that address all energy aspects of the aviation ecosystem—from net-zero-carbon energy sources to infrastructure optimization and aircraft propulsion technologies.
Low- and Net-Zero-Carbon Aviation Fuels and Energy Carriers
NREL offers end-to-end expertise in developing and demonstrating low- and net-zero-carbon aviation fuels—from field to fuel, electron to molecule, and bench to pilot scales.
NREL's broad research portfolio helps develop, scale, and integrate the production of climate-friendly sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), including e-fuels made by upgrading carbon dioxide (CO2) with renewable electricity. This includes research into multiple technology pathways designed to convert diverse fuel feedstocks—from CO2 to biomass such as lignin, agricultural residues, energy crops, and algae—into finished fuels, including net-zero-emission biofuels. To accelerate the introduction of SAF technologies into the marketplace, NREL closely collaborates with industry partners across the supply chain to scale and mature a range of conversion pathways. Recent projects include:
- Leading a 10-ton-per-day pilot plant project, called SAFFiRE, to cost-effectively produce SAF from corn stover, melding D3MAX's commercial sugar production and ethanol fermentation technology and NREL's patent-pending deacetylation and mechanical refining process
- Integrating electrochemistry with sugar fermentation to produce lipids used to make SAF while avoiding the release of CO2 into the atmosphere
- Integrating accurate fuel property measurements with advanced aviation turbine simulations to reduce fuel approval time and cost, increase low-carbon fuel blend levels, and improve fuel performance.
NREL's hydrogen and fuel cell research lowers the cost and increases the scale of technologies to safely make, store, move, and use hydrogen across multiple energy sectors, including in aviation. Renewable hydrogen can be used directly as a fuel or combined with bio-based carbon or waste carbon dioxide streams to produce net-zero-carbon liquid fuels. These energy-dense fuels are compatible with today's heavy-duty truck, rail, marine, and aviation engines. NREL researchers are developing advanced technologies to lower the cost of hydrogen production; novel hydrogen storage materials and carriers; durable, light, efficient fuel cell technologies for long-life, high-use applications; and infrastructure technologies for fast and safe fueling.
Integrated, Decarbonized Ground Aviation Infrastructure
NREL analysis and modeling can resiliently decarbonize airports, military bases, and vertiports to seamlessly integrate them with ground-based transportation systems.
NREL researchers use advanced methods to optimize airport building design and operations. In the Morpheus project, for example, NREL is developing advanced building controls for the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to identify solutions that are replicable across U.S. airports. To accommodate corresponding electrical generation and infrastructure requirements, thermal energy and battery storage—combined with energy efficiency and other forms of load shifting and load shedding—can offer airports cost-effective approaches to achieving their objectives and state and local energy challenges. Also, NREL is leveraging its Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems research and demonstration platform to validate and demonstrate integrated solutions that:
- Enable electrification strategies that mitigate integration challenges with high-power charging
- Utilize controllable building and charging loads to minimize or counteract electrification peak loads
- Enhance resilience, reduce operating costs, and de-risk implementation.
Sustainable Aircraft of the Future
Aircraft of the future will transcend the one-size-fits-all approach of today's liquid-fueled aircraft. NREL develops systems and components that enable these new fuel types and propulsion pathways.
To advance the understanding of new low-carbon sustainable aviation fuels and their impact on turbine engine performance, NREL's fuels and combustion researchers use an innovative combination of fuel property measurement, molecular-level chemistry models, and detailed simulations. Fuel properties are measured at the high temperature and high (or very low) pressure of engine operation, and machine learning tools are used to relate properties to performance. NREL also develops combustion kinetic models based on laboratory data. Then, researchers use high-performance computing simulations to evaluate the impact of new fuels and combustion kinetics on turbine engine operation, performance, and emissions.With these novel high-performance computing capabilities, NREL can help aviation stakeholders understand whether a new drop-in jet fuel candidate can pass performance, health, and safety qualifications for commercialization. In doing so, NREL also identifies cleaner, more efficient, and more cost-competitive sustainable aviation solutions.
NREL has multiple specialized energy sciences laboratories to develop, characterize, fabricate, manufacture, and validate hydrogen fuel cell and electrolyzer components and systems, as well as integrate renewable fuels with the grid, transportation, buildings, and other sectors. Researchers use these capabilities to develop advanced hydrogen detection technologies, evaluate the electrochemical properties of novel materials, develop and test advanced materials and cells for fuel cells, and develop methods to scale up renewable energy technology manufacturing. NREL's hydrogen systems and infrastructure research platform integrates hydrogen production, compression, storage, and dispensing into a unified system for developing new infrastructure technologies to enable safe fueling for transportation, stationary, and portable applications. Combined with thermodynamic modeling, these capabilities make it possible to evaluate a range of hydrogen station configurations and associated control strategies at airports, enabling aircraft and equipment manufacturers to improve component design, lower costs, and reduce downtime.
NREL examines the operational requirements and technical challenges of supporting an influx of short-haul electric flights at existing transportation hubs, including major airports such as Denver International Airport. Small electric aircraft could potentially leverage lower operating costs, therefore offering an attractive opportunity for operators to provide direct service between rural communities and large-hub airports, closing the rural–urban transportation gap. Similarly, the exploration of airborne transportation and advanced air mobility is the focus of a partnership between NREL and Supernal—an air mobility company from Hyundai Motor Group developing electronic vertical takeoff and landing vehicles (eVTOL). NREL's research portfolio examines various facets of advanced air mobility, including eVTOL, concentrating on the feasibility, opportunities, and challenges of deploying infrastructure effectively.
View an overview of NREL's sustainable aviation initiative, all NREL publications about sustainable aviation research, and publications for the Athena airport modeling project.
Impacts of Regional Air Mobility and Electrified Aircraft on Airport Electricity Infrastructure and Demand, NREL Technical Report (2023)
Addressing Electric Aviation Infrastructure Cybersecurity Implementation, NREL Technical Report (2022)
A Roadmap Toward a Sustainable Aviation Ecosystem, NREL Technical Report (2022)
Electrification of Aircraft: Challenges, Barriers, and Potential Impact, NREL Technical Report (2021)
Toward Net-Zero Sustainable Aviation Fuel With Wet Waste–Derived Volatile Fatty Acids, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021)
Well-to-Wake Analysis of Ethanol-to-Jet and Sugar-to-Jet Pathways, Biotechnology for Biofuels (2017)
Explore fact sheets on emerging topic areas in energy and aviation, and what they could mean in the push to decarbonize the sector.
Sustainable Aviation for Developing Economies, NREL Fact Sheet (2023)
Accelerated Sustainable Aviation Fuel Properties Modeling, NREL Fact Sheet (2022)
De-Risking the Design of Decarbonized Airport and Vertiport Energy Systems, NREL Fact Sheet (2022)
Electrified Aviation Demand Modeling, NREL Fact Sheet (2022)
Flight DNA: An Anonymized Aviation Data Tool and Repository, NREL Fact Sheet (2022)
Life Cycle Analysis With Blockchain Carbon Accounting, NREL Fact Sheet (2022)
Modeling Energy Generation at Airports, NREL Fact Sheet (2022)
Partner With NREL
NREL works with stakeholders from across the aviation ecosystem to identify critical needs that will achieve deep decarbonization. In this way, cross-sector collaboration helps create targeted solutions for overcoming the biggest barriers to realize low- or net-zero-carbon aviation.
Learn how to partner with NREL and discover the unique capabilities NREL offers airports and seaports.