SPOTLIGHT | A SAF Pair of Hands: Partnerships Crucial in Fast-Growing Industry

The rapidly growing SAF industry has quickly attracted a host of entrants from established energy and fuel companies, but there are few maps in this uncharted territory to guide producers to certain success.
By Milica Folić | August 14, 2023

The rapidly growing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry has quickly attracted a host of entrants from established energy and fuel companies. But in unchartered territory peppered with differing targets, multiple production pathways, and even more new and developing technologies, there are few maps to guide producers to certain success.

So how can SAF producers ensure they choose a provider that not only delivers top-performing solutions, equipment and catalysts as a one-off transaction, but also one that can also support and grow with them as a knowledge- and service-focused partner, over a full lifecycle? In this burgeoning industry, a partner should seek to work with a producer, guiding and helping them optimize as production and goals mature or as legislation, feedstocks and pathways evolve over the plant’s lifetime.

A few years back when the industry was still only asking for renewable diesel, one producer was seeking a technology provider for a new plant that would make SAF via hydroprocessing. What developed was a strong partnership that continues to grow today. For the initial project, the customer goal was to construct a plant that would produce only SAF and no diesel, a request that was quite unusual back in 2018. It was a unique request from a company we had not worked with before in the relatively immature area of SAF. But there is nothing more exciting to us than a completely novel challenge.

In such a scenario, the top priority is usually to identify and to set about closing knowledge gaps. For instance, it is vital to our approach that we work closely with customers to get a deep understanding of the particular project and their longer-term goals. This allows the establishment of a partnership and close collaboration that stretches past delivering a successful single project and into a lasting expertise and service-based affiliation.

It is important to recognize that SAF is still a new fuel product with new specifications that require new process steps and new technical approaches. The challenges do not stop at technical design—it is vital to understand long-term objectives to support the customer in the best way possible and throughout any changes that arise, such as in the demand landscape, new feedstocks, and legislation and incentivization.

Intelligent, Knowledge-Based Partnerships
Close collaboration and trust are central to delivering long-term value for the customer and future-proofing their business. Topsoe’s R&D division is constantly working not only to develop and innovate new technologies, but to improve and optimize those already in operation. As we learn and optimize, we are eager to pass on improvements to the relevant customers. In a developing industry like SAF, improvements to a customer’s production cost can come about if they have a knowledgeable and in-tune technology partner that continually invests in R&D and passes on any breakthroughs and optimizations.

From the customer side, if they decide or need to explore other feedstocks, processes or targeted products, we can help support any potential changes or adjustments. For instance, Topsoe can help fully scope a feedstock change, as we have completed significant testing across all major SAF feedstocks and have a large feedstock library. We are continuously undertaking R&D on feedstocks, meaning that the unit a customer buys from us is specifically designed for their exact purpose, but we place an emphasis on in-built flexibility. Should the feedstock change, they can call us, and we will have the answer for what they should do.

As SAF technology develops and ambitions increase, new questions and challenges will arise. From decades of experience with new technology development, Topsoe has several best practices for successful partnership in SAF.

Constant, transparent communication.  When breaking new ground, there must be a lot of constructive, forward-thinking dialogue; this ensures everyone is on top of latest developments, the customer’s goals are always in sight, and there is high transparency in terms of technology and design. The question “If we change that, then how will that impact other factors?” is a recurring conversation, but one that makes sure aims are met. This open dialogue also builds long-term customer trust, where Topsoe becomes a value-driving partner and not a licensor making a one-off sale.

Test and design—and be flexible. Testing is obviously a key component in ascertaining how customer goals can be met. It also defines the optimal design of the production facility. In the case mentioned earlier, we showed we could meet unique demands through a tailormade solution and by remaining flexible to customer needs. Remember, things change—sometimes customer requirements, other times it might be a new challenge, a technological development or an optimization opportunity. It is crucial to be flexible if circumstances alter. 

Customer-focused partnership. R&D-driven innovation, experience-based knowledge, attentive, service-minded experts and trust-based collaboration are the four pillars of Topsoe’s partnerships. We constantly learn, innovate and improve, and pass these benefits on to customers; we bring vast experience and hands-on knowhow to each project, covering testing, design, technology and ways of working; our people always see a customer’s ambition and target as our own ambition and target; and, through competence, reliability and results, we build long-term partnerships.

Though the first-ever flight to use SAF as part of its fuel took to the skies in 1998, the industry is only now ready to take off. With a wide variety of feedstock options, production processes, technologies and maturity curves in play, producers need to be certain they are working with a knowledgeable, flexible and can-do partner.

And one that is in it for the long haul.

Author: Milica Folić
Director of New Business Development, Topsoe