Sir Richard Branson: Commercial low-carbon jet fuel ‘within touching distance’

A decade on from Virgin Atlantic's first commercial flight using low-carbon fuel mix, the company's founder Sir Richard Branson believes that government incentives can help scale-up sustainable fuel use at a price on par with traditional aviation fuels.

Since 2008, Virgin Atlantic has been working with LanzaTech – a firm capable of turning industrial waste gases and other waste streams into sustainable aviation fuel – hitting key milestones such as operating flights using blended ethanol mixes.

A decade on from the formation of the partnership, Virgin Atlantic is calling on the UK Government to help new fuel streams enter into the market by incentivising and de-risking scale-up opportunities.

“The search to find a sustainable aviation fuel has been a long-standing challenge for airlines and fuel companies,” Virgin Atlantic’s founder Sir Richard Branson. “In the decade since Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to operate a commercial flight using a biofuel blend, tremendous progress has been made.

“We have invested in and worked with a number of fuel companies over the years and today we are partnered with LanzaTech because of its impressive sustainability profile and commercial potential.  Lanzatech is pioneering technology we couldn’t even imagine ten years ago, and we are now at the critical point where bringing the world’s first commercial, low carbon fuel to market is within touching distance.”

Virgin Atlantic claims that LanzaTech’s solution is aligned to the UK’s Industrial Strategy, as it is able to create jobs and boost international trade while lowering emissions. Since 2011, LanzaTech has raised more than $100m in investment to create five commercial ethanol plants. With support from the likes of HSBC, the company had produced 4,000 gallons of ethanol-based low-carbon jet fuel.

The jet fuel is currently undergoing a review process and will need to be qualified for use on commercial flights. Virgin Atlantic has expressed its intention to fly using the waste-derived, ethanol-based fuel later this year.

Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive Craig Kreeger said: “The project is now tantalisingly close to becoming a reality – with the potential to deliver massive carbon savings as well as economic and technological benefits to the UK. 

“Once again, we’re committed to pioneering a low carbon aviation future by becoming the first airline to use LanzaTech fuel on commercial flights.”

LanzaTech appeared on edie’s “Horizon Scanning” feature, outlining the six innovations set to shake-up sustainability. LanzaTech is one company that is forming partnerships with steel companies, including China Baowu Steel Group and Shougang Steel to create a fuel that offers up to 70% reductions in emissions.

Scientists are now able to create jet fuel with microbes that transform carbon to ethanol – a lower-carbon aviation fuel that has the potential to meet one-fifth of the aviation industry’s global needs. Around 150 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be cut globally if gases from the steel industry were used to manufacture ethanol.

Flight path

A multi-billion-dollar Boeing fleet investment, engine taxiing and weight management have together contributed to Virgin Atlantic reducing total aircraft carbon emissions by 22% since 2007. Virgin Atlantic has claimed that the latest figures have put the airline “well ahead” of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) industry targets for 2020.

The latest sustainability report reveals that CO2 per km travelled by passengers had also been reduced by 22%, while CO2 per revenue tonne km was reduced by 17%.

Matt Mace

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