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Virgin low carbon fuel announcement potentially game-changing

14 October 2011
Virgin low carbon fuel announcement potentially game-changing

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, analyzes the low carbon aviation fuel announcement which came from Virgin Atlantic Airlines this week.    

LONDON: The announcement this week from Virgin Atlantic Airlines of a new initiative to develop low carbon aviation fuel is an exciting and potentially game-changing development in the area of sustainable aviation.

Virgin is teaming up with two small companies, Lanzatech from New Zealand and Swedish Biofuels based in Stockholm, to produce a synthetic, low carbon replacement for traditional fossil-based jet fuel.

What makes the initiative particularly interesting, and potentially transformative, is what the fuel is produced from and the timeframe that Virgin is looking at for commercial use.

The alternative fuel discussion surrounding aviation has long been dogged by question marks over the sustainability and carbon footprint of the various fuels that have been proposed.

First generation biofuels were never really an option for aviation because they generally meant displacing food production. Second generation fuels derived from such non-agriculture crops as jatropha and camillina have been seen as credible options, but these still need to pass sustainability tests and there remain questions about scalability.

Looking further into the future, algae-based biofuels that can be grown on an industrial scale and without the need for large land areas, have been seen as the ultimate long-term solution for aviation.

Impressive technical advances in recent years have given the future of bio and alternative fuels a real boost, but for the most part their impact and full commercialization has generally been seen as at least a decade away.

Virgin’s new initiative could – possibly –  turn these assumptions on their heads.

What makes the new Virgin effort different is the technology being employed by Lanzatech.  Rather than utilizing a plant-based feedstock, Lanzatech has developed a biological process that uses waste carbon monoxide gas from industrial sources, such as steeling making, to manufacture ethanol.

Because the process is effectively recycling carbon rather than seeing it released into the atmosphere as CO2, provisional life-cycle analysis indicates that total CO2 reductions of over 50% compared to ‘traditional’ ethanol are achieved.

This is the kind of carbon reduction that other sectors would arguably kill for.

There are also a number of co-benefits from all of this, including the relative abundance of industrial CO2 as a feedstock, the mitigation solution the process provides for industrial emissions, and the obvious avoidance of land-use in feedstock production and the resource constraints associated with this.

Swedish Biofuel’s role in the venture is to turn the ethanol (which is unsuitable for aircraft use) into synthetic kerosene for use in jet engines. Like Lanzatech, Swedish Biofuels have their own proprietary technology for achieving this chemical wizardry.

Virgin is now working with both companies along with other partners in China to establish a full scale operation that would provide low carbon fuel for Virgin flights out of Shanghai from 2014.

Such a timeframe would have been unthinkable within the industry even a few years ago.

Whether Virgin’s efforts will ultimately been seen as a turning point for establishing a truly sustainable aviation sector remains to be seen.  However, given the environmental benefits, particularly the avoidance of land-use impacts, this is an initiative which anyone interested in a sustainable aviation industry and the economic and social benefits it brings, would wish to succeed.  

Note: Virgin Atlantic and The Climate Group are both members of the Aviation Global Deal Group, an industry lead initiative that seeks to promote a global sectoral agreement for reducing aviation emissions.  

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