Virgin Atlantic is pioneering a new biofuel with half the carbon footprint of fossil fuels.
Within three years, Virgin Atlantic could be powering some of its aircraft with a new type of low-carbon biofuel derived from waste gases from steel mills.
The airline has announced a tie-up with the industrial bio-commodities technology provider LanzaTech to produce the new fuel in India, a country which is one of the world’s largest steel producers.
The new ethanol-based resource is claimed to have half the carbon footprint of traditional fossil fuel. A demonstration flight should take place within 18 months, with Virgin’s flights from Delhi and Shanghai to London Heathrow using the biofuel by 2014.
The LanzaTech process captures gases – specifically carbon monoxide (CO) – which would otherwise have been emitted directly into the atmosphere. Then, it converts them into ethanol-based fuel. The CO is dispersed into liquid and consumed by microbes before being recovered from the fermentation broth. Further technology developed by the Stockholm-based company Swedish Biofuels will then convert the ethanol into viable jet fuel.
Virgin Atlantic believes that the project will take it well beyond its pledge to reduce carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre by 30% by 2020. Virgin’s President, Richard Branson, explained: “This partnership is aimed at producing a next-generation, low-carbon aviation fuel which is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint. We are excited about the savings that this technology could help us achieve.”
There are several attractive features for the airline. First, the price of the fuel will be similar to the kerosene currently used to power aircraft, making it a commercially viable proposition for the airline. Second, because it is made from an industrial waste stream, the new fuel has none of the land use concerns associated with biofuels derived from agricultural products. And finally, it is also hugely scalable, with the world’s steel mills capable of producing some 15 billion gallons a year – not much less than the total consumed by US airlines. – Andrew Collier
Photo: Virgin Atlantic