Ready for liftoff? Virgin poised for commercial flight using waste-based biofuel

Virgin airlines airplane
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Passengers on Virgin Atlantic's VS16 flight from Orlando to London Gatwick set to arrive in the United Kingdom on Wednesday morning may not have realized anything particularly special about their flight.

But the touchdown of the Boeing 747 running the VS16 flight marked a "historic" moment in the history of green aviation, according to the airline. 

The flight was poised to become the first commercial air journey in the world to run on a new form of jet fuel made from recycling waste carbon gases, which its creators claim dramatically could cut the carbon emissions associated with aviation.

The new fuel, developed by U.S. firm LanzaTech with financial support from the U.S. and U.K. governments, is produced by recycling waste industrial gases from steel making and other heavy industrial processes. LanzaTech takes the waste, carbon-rich gases to first make ethanol, which then can be used for a range of low carbon products, including jet fuel.

LanzaTech said the fuel delivers 70 percent lifecycle carbon savings compared to traditional jet fuel and has none of the water and land use concerns associated with crop-based biofuels. 

"Long-haul travel is more important than ever for connecting people around the world," said Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson, scheduled to marshall in the plane from the runway. "And it's our responsibility to ensure we're doing that in the most sustainable way possible. Working with LanzaTech will enable us to drastically reduce our carbon emissions and at the same time, help support U.K. industry. That's why we're so excited to showcase this fuel on its first commercial flight as we plan for the world's first full-scale jet fuel plant using this amazing new technology."

Virgin said today it could fuel 100 percent of all its flights departing from Britain with a 50 percent mix of the new fuel — a move that could deliver almost a million tons of CO2 savings a year. However, concerns remain over the cost and scalability of jet biofuels and Virgin argued more support was required from the U.K. government to help LanzaTech and other biofuel providers build a commercial business case for the adoption of emerging low carbon fuels.

"Today Virgin Atlantic is calling on the U.K. government to commit to making this fuel a commercial reality in the U.K.," the company said in a statement. "Allowing access for new carbon capture and utilization (CCU) technologies like LanzaTech's to incentives already given to earlier generations of 'biofuels' and providing critical investor support will enable first plants to be swiftly built."

The U.K. government already has signaled its desire to encourage waste-based biofuels in commercial aviation under a crop of new renewable transport targets confirmed earlier this year, and also has promised to invest up to $129 million in new CCU and storage and industrial innovation under the Clean Growth Strategy.  

LanzaTech claims that if its CCU system were rolled out to all eligible steel mills around the world — around 65 percent of the total — it could meet 20 percent of global demand for commercial aviation jet fuel. It insists the fuel has a "fighting chance" of costing the same as jet fuel made from fossil fuels.

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