Phillips 66 leading the way with sustainable aviation fuel

Phillips 66 Limited’s Humber Refinery located in Lincolnshire, is producing and pumping sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) beneath our feet to locations across the UK, the first UK refinery to do so. We spoke with Simon Holt, Manager for Emerging Energy (Europe) at Phillips 66 Limited, to find out more about the importance of what they do, and what goes on behind the scenes of producing SAF.

When did the Humber Refinery open, and how long have you produced SAF?

It’s been open since the late 60s – initially as the Continental Oil Company. Since then, we’ve come a long way. When the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation was introduced in 2017, we had to devise a way to meet our renewable fuel obligations. 

We took a unique approach and decided our best way would be to produce renewable fuel using the refinery we already had. That’s when we started processing used cooking oil (UCO) – which you can crack and treat it like crude oil – which we were already doing. 

What processes are involved in producing SAF?

We source UCO from companies that collect it from restaurants. Then it goes into a tank and we pump it into the refinery – there are around 50 different processes. The early stages involve the process of cracking the UCO with heat. Then we treat and purify it. All of this takes place in just a few hours.

It is then put into a product tank and mixed with fossil jet fuel,  with a maximum of 50 percent UCO. At the moment, the refinery can produce around 20,000 metric tonnes of SAF a year, which we plan to more than double by 2025.

What makes the Humber Refinery unique?

Not only are we the only place in the UK to produce SAF at scale, but we’re also the only refinery in Europe that produces specialty graphite coke, which is used in the manufacturing of anodes, a critical component of lithium-ion batteries. These are the same high-performance batteries that power EVs, personal electronics, medical devices and grid storage.

What changes have there been at the Humber Refinery with regards to sustainability?

There’s been a huge push on sustainability since 2017, after the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation was introduced. We began producing lower-carbon diesel, gasoline and propane.  After that, we began correspondence with IAG Cargo in the run-up to COP 26 about getting a supply of SAF in the UK. That’s when we discovered that there was a demand for the SAF we were producing. Our partnership with IAG Cargo began after that, in 2021.

Is there a balance of manpower and technology that goes into producing SAF?

We have around 1,000 people working at the refinery, and this number can double during the maintenance periods. Although producing SAF is technical, we don’t use new technology. We use our well-established refinery processes.

When I joined 23 years ago, I was amazed by the chemical reactions. It was incredible seeing oil being heated to 600 degrees centigrade and then combining it with a sand-like catalyst flowing through a network of pipes.

How is the SAF transported?

Once the SAF is made, it’s injected into an extensive underground storage and pipeline system, which was created in World War II to keep the system hidden from German bombers. The pipes efficiently transport fuel across the UK to all major airports.

Why are relationships with companies like IAG Cargo so vital for Phillips 66 Limited?

To achieve sustainable solutions, we need close collaboration with companies like IAG Cargo. For SAF, this is just the beginning. What’s most important is developing relationships and then collaborations, so we can do more together and build more facilities to produce new sustainable solutions. Currently, we produce a specialty graphite coke from our refinery that we sell to companies that make lithium-ion batteries. We’re looking to get further down that supply chain, but that’s only possible by companies working closely together.

What role will the air cargo/logistics industry play in terms of SAF?

The air logistics industry will probably lead the way – IAG Cargo has shown us that. We’ve seen this with businesses that have targets to achieve net zero by a specific date. They are looking at all aspects of their carbon emissions and the best economical solutions for change. If you’re using air cargo a lot, then SAF is a huge step forward in reducing aviation related emissions. 

Why is SAF so vital to help work towards net zero aviation?

Demand for aviation is continuously increasing: there needs to be solutions for working towards the goal of decarbonising it. British Airways has said that CO2 emissions saved by using our SAF will be enough to reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by almost 100,000 tonnes – enough to power 700 net zero CO2 emissions flights between London and New York on its fuel-efficient Boeing 787.

What are your goals and plans to help achieve a more sustainable future?

We’re working on finding a way to turn rubber from end-of-life tyres into SAF and produce electrolytic hydrogen through wind power. Lower-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture projects are being developed to reduce our refinery’s carbon emissions and the carbon intensity of the products we make that society needs.

Do you have any other locations in the world that produce SAF?

We’re currently in the process of converting our San Francisco refinery into a 100 percent renewable refinery, which will be online from around 2024, and we’ll be producing SAF from there. We’ve also got other projects in the works to produce even more SAF in the US and more plans in the UK, too.

How can the UK produce more SAF? 

There needs to be more demand. We didn’t know there was any demand until last year, but it’s increasing all the time. There’s a mandate for 10 percent of aviation fuel to be sustainable by 2030. There’s technology to turn all sorts of waste into fuel, but it costs a lot. We need government support and regulatory approved processes to get new or improved ways to produce SAF off the ground, but costs will fall as technology is proven at scale.  There is a bright future for SAF production in the UK.