Technology

Virgin airliner completes first transatlantic flight powered solely by waste-derived SAF

For the first time, a commercial flight has crossed the Atlantic powered exclusively by sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) made from waste fats, including cooking oils.

Waste-derived SAFThe Virgin Boeing 787 airliner took flight today (28 November), departing from Heathrow to JFK International Airport, in a milestone that the aviation industry claims is a significant step in achieving the sector’s goal of hitting ‘Jet Zero’.

The trip was powered using 50 tonnes of SAF, 88 per cent of which was produced by waste fats – such as used cooking oil and animal fats – that cannot re-enter the food chain with the remainder created using waste derived from corn production in the US.

The Government claims that the use of SAFs offers a GHG emission reduction of approximately 70 per cent compared to standard jet fuel over its full life cycle.

This comes despite concerns regarding the sustainability of producing SAFs from waste fats; a consultation document from the UK Government has proposed implementing a restriction or prohibition on the utilisation of used cooking oils. This position has been prompted by concerns that some of the 26 million litres of used cooking oils imported into the UK from Asia in 2021 might actually consist of virgin palm oil, a feedstock implicated in tropical deforestation.

Virgin Atlantic and its consortium were awarded up to £1 million in UK Government funding following a challenge from the Department of Transport to support the sector in achieving the milestone flight.

The flight will generate important data which the Government hopes will help accelerate the approval of SAF and help produce greater insight into its efficiency.

On board the flight was Virgin founder Richard Branson and the Secretary of State for Transport, Mark Harper MP, who was departing for an official visit to the US to promote the UK’s position as a market leader in transport innovation and SAFs.

Harper commented: “Today’s historic flight, powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel, shows how we can both decarbonise transport and enable passengers to keep flying when and where they want.

“This Government has backed today’s flight to take-off and we will continue to support the UK’s emerging SAF industry as it creates jobs, grows the economy and gets us to Jet Zero.”

Sustainable aviation fuels and ‘Jet Zero’

The aviation industry views the use of SAFs as critical to achieving net-zero emissions in the sector. This approach is backed by the UK Government, which has implemented a mandate requiring at least 10 per cent of jet fuel to come from sustainable sources by 2030.

However, uptake remains slow; just 0.1 per cent of jet fuels consumed worldwide come from sustainable sources while the fuel currently costs three to five times as much as regular kerosene.

Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, said: “Flight100 proves that Sustainable Aviation Fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it’s the only viable solution for decarbonising long haul aviation. It’s taken radical collaboration to get here and we’re proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further.

“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms are in place.”

In efforts to accelerate the transition to Jet Zero, the Government has provided over £53 million in funding across nine projects within the country with the hopes of scaling up the production of SAFs. The efforts to make the fuels more readily available include a commitment to opening five commercial SAF plants by 2025 with hopes that the UK will become a leader in the field.

Despite the success of the flight, Paul Thompson, Head of Renewable Transport Fuels at the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA), warned that SAFs are not a panacea for the aviation industry’s emission problem.

Commenting on the flight, he said: “REA welcomes this first-ever transatlantic flight using Sustainable Aviation Fuels today and congratulates all the project partners. The decarbonisation of the aviation industry is a key sector to meet Net Zero and having been very closely involved with our members and Government on developing policy in this field we welcome this landmark.

“However, in the longer-term we know this is not a ‘silver bullet’ and a mix of technologies (such as zero carbon hydrogen and electrification) will be necessary, alongside addressing the elephant in the room of ever-growing aviation use.”

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