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.

NREL considers fuels—including electricity, hydrogen, and sustainable aviation fuel—airports, and aircraft to be the three pillars of a sustainable aviation ecosystem. That framework also involves system interdependencies, including energy justice, the overarching sustainable aviation ecosystem, energy solutions, communications, the transportation network, and human systems.

NREL develops and helps deploy sustainable aviation solutions that can be scaled globally—from net-zero-carbon energy sources to infrastructure optimization and aircraft propulsion technologies.

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.

Fuels

Fuels

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.

NREL is developing high-performance, cost-effective, and safe battery storage systems to power electrified transportation, including in the aviation sector. NREL's electrochemical storage research ranges from materials discovery and development to advanced electrode design, cell evaluation, system design and development, engendering analysis, and lifetime analysis of secondary batteries. In addition, NREL continues to explore refinements and new options—such as lithium-air, magnesium-ion, and solid-state technologies—to meet specific energy needs.
Meeting aggressive aviation decarbonization goals requires a new approach for developing net-zero-carbon fuels with properties that show identical or even improved performance compared to conventional jet fuels. NREL scientists leverage deep knowledge of fuel properties to evaluate the impact of new forms of low-carbon sustainable aviation fuel on efficiency and emissions of both reciprocating and turbine engines under all operating conditions. Also, NREL's economic, sustainability, and market analysis researchers conduct techno-economic analysis and life cycle assessments—incorporating extensive feedstock research and biorefinery simulations—to quantify the economic viability and environmental sustainability of biofuel production processes. NREL supports the hydrogen industry through partner demonstrations and deployments of new electric and hydrogen technologies through data collection, analysis, and dissemination.

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.

Airport Ecosystem

Airport Ecosystem

As leaders in behind-the-meter storage research, NREL researchers are focusing on energy storage technologies that minimize costs and grid impacts by integrating electric vehicle and aircraft charging, solar photovoltaic generation, and energy-efficient buildings using controllable loads. This integrated approach considers all aspects of the system—from analysis to materials, whole system design, resilience planning, and controls—to meet 24-hour critical facility energy demands across distributed resources at airports. In addition, NREL's stationary battery storage research is evaluating next-generation materials for large-scale, long-life energy storage technologies.
To meet the energy needs of electric planes, airport fleets, and aircraft ground service equipment, airports require next-generation charging stations that provide fast charging safely and efficiently at an estimated capacity of 1 MW or more. NREL is partnering with industry to develop a new high-power charging standard for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. These efforts support a broader research effort to enable high-power charging capacity using NREL's state-of-the-art Electric Vehicle Research Infrastructure evaluation platform within the Energy Systems Integration Facility. Finally, NREL's Advanced Research on Integrated Energy Systems research platform unites research capabilities at multiple scales and across sectors to accelerate decarbonized, high-power charging at utility scale.
New aviation technologies bring new system configurations, data management, operating strategies, and supply chains—all of which present security challenges that require careful evaluation. At the same time, increases in natural hazards and an aging infrastructure present new grid vulnerabilities. NREL's resilience experts assess potential risks to an airport's key infrastructure, and help partners prepare with the most cost-effective and reliable solutions for meeting existing and future resilience needs at their site, with a focus on operators' up-time, efficiency, decarbonization, and economic goals. Solutions work to meet both resiliency and sustainability goals in concert. NREL's advanced threat emulation and other cybersecurity capabilities can help stakeholders understand best practices for securing electric charging systems, ground transportation, and other airport facilities in the early stages of sustainable aviation deployment.
Through Athena, NREL has applied high-performance computing and advanced analytics to improve vehicle efficiency at airports, including identifying strategies for reducing energy use, capital expenditures, and operational costs. NREL also partners with airports to assist with optimal vehicle selection, charging infrastructure, load management strategies, energy supply decisions, and air pollutant mitigation. Using NREL's Renewable Energy Integration and Optimization platform, researchers evaluate the economics of various supplies and dispatchable loads at a given site, including grid energy, renewable energy options (e.g., solar, wind, geothermal), diesel, natural gas, energy storage, and dispatchable loads. NREL can also advise airport planners and fuel providers on standards and best practices for energy delivery and quality (i.e., sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen, electricity), airport infrastructure, and regional delivery methods for introducing new products (such as sustainable aviation fuel) into existing 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.

Aircraft

Aircraft

Aircraft electrification relies heavily on advanced power electronics to distribute the proper amount and type of power between system components such as batteries, inverters, power electronics, chargers, and electric machines. NREL's advanced power electronics and electric machines research optimizes power systems to decrease costs, reduce component footprints, and improve system performance, reliability, and efficiency. Existing projects support the development of innovative lightweight and ultra-efficient electric motors, motor drives, and thermal management systems for sustainable aviation.
The greater power requirements and system integration demands of aircraft carriers pose significant challenges to energy storage technologies. NREL researchers work hand-in-hand with industry partners to address transportation energy storage challenges with new materials and processes for a full range of batteries designed to power tomorrow's energy-efficient vehicles and aircraft. NREL provides a comprehensive review of battery safety that integrates multiscale, multidomain models with sophisticated experimental characterization capabilities. In addition, NREL explores ways to reduce the amount of critical materials they require and increase the lifetime value of battery materials—including repurposing for a second application and recycling materials.

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.

Publications

View all NREL publications about sustainable aviation research and Athena project publications.

Explore fact sheets on emerging topic areas in energy and aviation, and what they could mean in the push to decarbonize the sector.

Modeling Energy Generation at Airports, NREL Fact Sheet (2022)

Accelerated Sustainable Aviation Fuel Properties 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)

Electrified Aviation Demand Modeling, 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.

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