Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Virgin Atlantic’s First Net-Zero Transatlantic Flight Will Be Powered By SAF


Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic will launch the world’s first net-zero transatlantic flight powered by sustainable aviation fuel next year.

The groundbreaking flight, slated for sometime next year, is being funded by the U.K. Department for Transport. Powered by 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel, the Virgin Atlantic flight will be combined with carbon removal through biochar credits to make the flight net-zero. Biochar traps and stores atmospheric carbon.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is made from waste oils and agricultural crops, and can reduce emissions 70 percent compared with conventional jet fuel.

Virgin Atlantic will work with Imperial College London, Rolls-Royce, Boeing, and the University of Sheffield to determine the most energy-efficient routes and analyze data from the flight.

“As we adopt sustainable aviation fuels to decarbonise aviation, it’s essential that we also evaluate and reduce the non-CO2 climate impacts,” Dr. Marc Stettler of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said in a statement.

“Not only will this flight pave the way for future generations, but it will demonstrate just how much we can achieve when we work together on a shared goal – bringing together some of the best businesses and academics in the world and led by a British airline,” Transport Secretary Mark Harper said. 

In November, Virgin Atlantic launched a direct flight from Heathrow Airport in London to Tampa Bay, Florida, on what it says was the greenest plane in the sky. The flight was made on an Airbus A330neo named Billie Holiday. Virgin flew the aircraft for the first time in October on its route between Heathrow and Boston. The airline says it’s also adding a Miami route featuring the new aircraft.

“We have double the reasons to celebrate today as we fly our brand-new plane into our latest destination — Tampa Bay,” Sir Richard Branson, President of Virgin Atlantic and Founder of Virgin Group said in a statement. “I can’t think of a better way to mark our arrival into this incredible region than by giving passengers the best start to their journeys on our new A330neo.”

The A330neo

The A330neo is the newest aircraft in the Virgin fleet, succeeding the A330-300; the planes are 11 percent more fuel and carbon efficient than their predecessor. They’re also quieter, offering a 50 percent reduction in airport noise contour.

Virgin says it expects to add three more of the A330neo planes this year, with a total of 16 in use by 2026.

Virgin Atlantic chief executive Shai Weiss said the A330neo planes will lead the airline customers to “guilt-free travel”.

“The number one thing airlines need to do is fly the youngest fleet in the sky,” Weiss said in a statement

“Over the last decade, we have reduced our carbon emissions by 36 percent, despite flying six percent more. We are calling on other airlines to do exactly the same — invest, and have the youngest fleet in the sky,” he said.

On average, the Virgin fleet is seven years old — about half that of its closest competitor. “We are all on the road to net-zero flying by 2050,” Weiss said.

Sustainable aviation fuel

Virgin is also working toward expanding its sustainable aviation fuel. It recently invested in Air Company, a fuel producer that says it has developed Airmade, the first carbon-neutral jet fuel made from captured CO2.

Most SAF is made from feedstocks that could be used for other purposes, such as feeding people and animals.

Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic | Courtesy

Air Company doesn’t require anything but emissions for its SAF; it traps carbon dioxide from factories turning corn into ethanol for conventional fuel. The practice is emissions-heavy and Air Company says the CO2 produces is “pure”.

And if ethanol production runs dry as consumers shift to EVs and other sustainable modes of transport, there is still an abundant source of CO2 available to turn into fuel.

The company has inked deals with Virgin Atlantic along with JetBlue as well as the U.S. Air Force. In total, Air Company says it has commitments for more than one billion gallons of its SAF.

For airlines like Virgin Atlantic, Airmade performs identically to conventional jet fuel, meaning airlines won’t have to make any adjustments to engines to accommodate the fuel.

Virgin Airways

Air Company says the fuel is safe and effective and can help take the aviation industry carbon-negative. Gregory Constantine, CEO and Co-Founder of Air Company, told Forbes that if the technology were to be applied to every industry, “we could mitigate 10.2 percent to 11 percent of carbon, billions of tons of carbon.”

Both the A330neo and the deal with Air Company are part of Virgin’s sustainability commitments. The company plans to increase its SAF to ten percent by 2030, with ambitious CO2 reduction targets by 2026, 2030, and 2040, and achieving net zero by 2050, “reinforcing its commitment to embed sustainability through innovation, transparency, and accountability to do more for the protection of the planet.”

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