Wednesday's test flight aimed to demonstrate the clean fuel's potential as a drop-in replacement for jet kerosene that matches its technical and chemical requirements, Emirates said.
The flight by the world's biggest operator of A380 double-decker jets took off from Dubai International Airport (DXB) at 11.15am and landed at 12.30pm
“Once we've completed this test, the next step will be the availability of SAF in various airports and we are relying on fuel suppliers to start manufacturing and producing such a fuel at a volume that we will be requiring – that will be the challenge,” Adel Al Redha, Emirates' chief operating officer, said on the tarmac before the aircraft took off.
“I hope that next year we will be able to see the volume of SAF being available at airports at the required levels to support airlines.”
Dubai this week hosts the International Civil Aviation Organisation's third Conference on Alternative Aviation Fuels. The industry gathering is seeking to establish a global framework for SAF, lower-carbon aviation fuels and other clean energy that is critical for the aviation sector to achieve its net-zero target by 2050.
The test flight also comes days before the UAE hosts the Cop28 climate change summit, from November 30 to December 12 in Dubai.
In January, Emirates completed the demonstration flight of a Boeing 777-300ER powered by 100 per cent SAF, as part of the global aviation industry's push to use more of the greener fuel to meet carbon emission targets.
The International Air Transport Association believes SAF could contribute more than 60 per cent of the emissions reduction needed in aviation globally by 2050. The rest will be tackled by efficiency improvements through technology and operations and the use of hydrogen-powered planes, provided that countries create effective support policies.
However, airlines are struggling to buy enough SAF to power flights. The scale of production remains small and the clean fuel is more expensive for airlines to buy than conventional kerosene.
“SAF is still not available across many airports,” Mr Al Redha said.
Emirates operates passenger and cargo services to 144 airports globally as of September 30 with a fleet of Boeing 777s and A380s.
Asked if Emirates has a goal for SAF use across its fleet of wide-body aircraft, Mr Al Redha pointed to industrywide challenges including sourcing enough SAF at an economically viable price at major airports.
“It’s not about Emirates having a target, it’s about what’s really available in the industry,” he said.
“There are physical challenges that we need to overcome.”
SAF is three to five times more expensive than traditional jet fuel, but increasing production volumes will help reduce the cost of production and distribution, he said.
The commitment by industry stakeholders including airlines, plane makers and oil companies to reduce carbon emissions will lead to improvements in SAF supply over the next few years.
“We’re just in the beginning of it and that’s why we’re not seeing the quantity we need but I expect in the next five to seven years we will see a major step-change in this direction,” Mr Al Redha said.
Emirates' test flight on Wednesday was the result of a cross-industry collaboration between Airbus, Engine Alliance (a 50-50 joint company between GE Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney), Enoc, Finnish biofuel producer Neste and Wisconsin-based renewable fuels company Virent.
Neste is ramping up its SAF production capacity to 1.5 million tonnes in 2024 and 2.2 million tonnes by 2026, the company's global head of aviation regulation, Klaas Pel, said.
The company currently has a global SAF production capability of 1 million tonnes, according to its website.
Aviation is the hardest sector to abate, making it a global challenge, but while SAF is expensive, “the cost of doing nothing, the cost of continuing to flying on fossil fuel on the environment will be a lot higher” Mr Al Redha said.
“Time is running out, climate change is real … and we want not just ourselves but also our children and grandchildren to be able to fly,” he added.
The Emirates A380 test flight adds to the body of industry data and research about using SAF blends in higher proportions, paving the way for standardisation and future certification of 100 per cent drop-in SAF as a replacement for jet fuel. The current blend limit is 50 per cent.
“At Airbus, we are working to make all our aircraft 100 per cent SAF-capable by 2030,” Julie Kitcher, Airbus executive vice president of communications and corporate affairs, said in a statement.