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All Systems Green

Virgin Atlantic crosses the Atlantic by air using waste and fat as fuel

Ideas for decarbonization have become so common that it’s difficult to separate real from fantasy. Do biofuels really work? Can battery storage actually supply reliable, consistent power? Can we really fly jets over long distances using alternative fuels? Many related questions remain unanswered, but the third just got its stamp of approval. How does getting propelled across the skies over the Atlantic by using mostly waste, oils, and fats sound? Virgin Atlantic claimed on November 28th to have done just that.

The company proclaimed a “historic” flight that day when its first “Flight100'' model flew from London Heathrow to New York JFK on “100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)”, following a year of “radical collaboration” with the likes of ICF, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Imperial College London and University of Sheffield. The high-profile demo was aimed at demonstrating the capability of SAF as a safe drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel, compatible with today's engines, airframes and fuel infrastructure.

The fuel, made from waste products, delivers CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70%, whilst performing like the traditional jet fuel it replaces, Virgin said in a statement. Electrical Apparatus’ requests for additional comment were not returned as of press time. We imagine flamboyant CEO Sir Richard Branson and co. are busy basking in the press attention. But let’s get to this fatty fuel. 

The SAF used on Flight100 is a unique dual blend; 88% HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids) supplied by AirBP and 12% SAK (Synthetic Aromatic Kerosene) supplied by Virent, a subsidiary of Findlay, Ohio’s Marathon Petroleum Corporation. The HEFA is made from waste fats while the SAK is made from plant sugars, with the remainder of plant proteins, oil and fibers continuing into the food chain. SAK is needed in 100% SAF blends to give the fuel the required aromatics for engine function. To achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, “the innovation and investment needed across all available feedstocks and technologies must be harnessed to maximize SAF volumes as well as continuing the research and development needed to bring new zero emission aircraft to market,” these companies’ research has concluded. 

While other technologies such as electric and hydrogen remain more questionable in terms of their readiness, Virgin says SAF can be used now. Today, SAF represents less than 0.1% of global jet fuel volumes and fuel standards allow for just a 50% SAF blend in commercial jet engines. 

For its part, Virgin Atlantic does currently operate one of the youngest and most fuel and carbon-efficient fleets in the sky. However, industry and government will be required for realistic usage of SAF fuels to go further, especially if goals such as creating a “UK SAF industry” and meeting aviation's 10% SAF by 2030 target are to be met. Green energy advocates claim that implementing alternative fuels sources such as SAF will also mean capitalizing on the significant social and economic benefits it could bring—such as an estimated contribution of £1.8 billion ($1.98 billion USD) in gross value added to the UK and more than 10,000 jobs.

Virgin Atlantic flies world’s first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel flight from London to New York City.—Virgin Atlantic photo

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