Virgin unveils aviation ‘game-changer’ with alcohol-to-jet fuel

Virgin Atlantic has today (14 September) announced that an innovative partnership with carbon capture company LanzaTech has successfully produced 1,500 gallons of low-carbon, alcohol-to-jet (AtJ) fuel.

With the aviation sector struggling to control spiraling emission levels, Virgin Atlantic believes the fuel – dubbed Lanzanol – could help curb emissions. The UK-based partnership will now work with Boeing to test aircraft and engine manufacturing requirements before approving the fuel for use on a commercial aircraft by 2017.

Virgin Group’s founder Sir Richard Branson said: “This is a real game changer for aviation and could significantly reduce the industry’s reliance on oil within our lifetime. Virgin Atlantic was the first commercial airline to test a bio-fuel flight and continues to be a leader in sustainable aviation. 

“We chose to partner with LanzaTech because of its impressive sustainability profile and the commercial potential of the jet fuel. Our understanding of low-carbon fuels has developed rapidly over the last decade, and we are closer than ever before to bringing a sustainable product to the market for commercial use by Virgin Atlantic and other global airlines.”

Both Virgin and LanzaTech have been working to produce the world’s first jet fuel derived from industrial waste gas from steel mills since 2011. The process captures carbon from the gas via fermentation to ethanol, which is then recovered to produce ethanol feedstock. Virgin claims that each gallon of ethanol can product half-a-gallon of aviation fuel.

Stealing from steel

According to the companies, the process could be used to capture and recycle around one-third of the carbon that energy-intensive steel facilities emit; with these facilities producing around 1.7bn metric tonnes of steel annually, there is a prime resource market for AtJ concepts.

LanzaTech estimates that this process could be retrofitted across 65% of the world’s steel mills, potentially leading to the creation of 15bn gallons of AtJ fuel – representing around 19% of global aviation fuel. The current batch of Lanzanol was produced in China at a Roundtable of Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) certified Shougang demonstration facility.

With HSBC providing funds to accelerate the project, it is hoped that the partnership will pave the way for LanzaTech to build its first commercial jet fuel plant, based in the UK, to supply fuel to Virgin Atlantic and other airlines.

Commenting on the breakthrough, WWF UK’s climate and aviation specialist James Beard said: “Decarbonisation of heavy industry and aviation will be difficult, which makes converting industrial waste gases into low-carbon jet fuel a fascinating prospect.

All airlines should pursue the development of genuinely sustainable, low-carbon fuels that are certified to minimise indirect land use change. UN aviation agency ICAO – meeting later this month in Montreal – needs to incentivise investment in sustainable solutions through the setting of global sustainability criteria for low-carbon aviation fuels, credited towards its climate goals.”

A change in the air

With the International Civil Aviation Organisation calling on the industry to utilise clean technology to significantly reduce its carbon footprint, a host of aviation companies are turning to innovation biofuels for solutions.

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is teaming up with Siemens to introduce a range of hybrid passenger planes, while rival Boeing has partnered with NASA to reduce emissions through lighter wing designs.

FedEx, which operates a fleet of more than 600 aircrafts, has forged an agreement with Colorado-based firm Red Rock Biofuels to purchase alternative jet fuel, which will support the company in its pledge to obtain 30% of its jet fuel from alternative sources by 2030.

Matt Mace

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