Virgin Atlantic is celebrating becoming the first airline ever to send off a commercial airliner fully powered by “sustainable” jet fuel on a transatlantic flight.
The test flight didn’t carry fare-paying passengers but consisted of engineers, scientists, and industry experts.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority earlier this month granted permission for Virgin Atlantic and its partners, including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, and BP, to fly the Nov. 28 flight after a series of technical reviews in 2022.
Additionally, the UK Transport Department provided 1 million pounds ($1.27 million) to plan and operate the flight.
According to a statement from Virgin Atlantic, the “historic” flight was made using “100 percent Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)” and marks the “culmination of a year of radical collaboration, to demonstrate 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 “sustainable” fuel is made up of 88 percent hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids, or waste fats, supplied by AirBP and 12 percent synthetic aromatic kerosene made from plant sugars supplied by Virent, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corp.
The remainder of the plant proteins, oil, and fibers will thus continue into the food chain, the British airline said.
According to the airline, SAF delivers CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70 percent, whilst “performing like the traditional jet fuel it replaces.”
‘Only Viable Solution for Decarbonizing Long Haul Aviation’The “sustainable” fuel is also available to be used immediately while other technologies such as electric and hydrogen remain “decades away,” the company said.
“To achieve Net Zero 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,” the company said.
The test flight was done to prove both the capabilities of SAF and the flight’s noncarbon emissions.
Data from the test flight will be shared with industry experts in the coming weeks, and Virgin Atlantic will continue its involvement with contrail work (the vapor trails left behind by aircraft engine exhausts) through the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Contrail Impact Task Force, which is partially funded by Virgin Unite.
Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson, CEO Shai Weiss, and UK Secretary of State for Transport Mark Harper were on board the Nov. 28 flight.
Billionaire entrepreneur Mr. Branson said he “couldn’t be prouder” to be on board the flight and praised his company for “challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry” to never settle.
Mr. Weiss 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 decarbonizing 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, backed by the Government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.
SAF ChallengesWhile industry experts touted Flight100, which wasn’t 100 percent emission-free, but rather net-zero emissions, the availability of SAF is currently less than one-thousandth of the total volume of jet fuel used worldwide, The Guardian reported.
Meanwhile, the cost of SAF is also high, at roughly three to five times as much as regular jet fuel.
The process of making SAF—which is produced from nonpetroleum-based renewable feedstocks including, but not limited to, the food and yard waste portion of municipal solid waste, woody biomass, fats/greases/oils, and other feedstocks—also requires a lot of energy.
It also still produces emissions, although, as Virgin Atlantic argues, the overall CO2 lifecycle emissions are drastically lower when compared to regular petroleum-based fuel.
As stated by the International Air Transport Association, SAF can also be produced synthetically via a process that captures carbon directly from the air. The fuel is considered “sustainable” because the raw feedstock doesn’t compete with food crops or water supplies or isn’t responsible for forest degradation.
According to that briefing, doing so would require roughly one-half of UK agricultural land, while producing sufficient green hydrogen fuel would require 2.4 to 3.4 times the UK’s 2020 renewable (wind and solar) electricity generation.
Still, Virgin Atlantic said Flight100 represented a “major milestone” for the entire aviation industry in its journey toward achieving net-zero carbon emissions.