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Our quest for biofuel and sustainable aviation.

By: Jodie Gray

September 21, 2016

A Dan Air Boeing 707

787 Engine

If you look back over the history of aviation we have already made substantial strides towards a greener industry. There’s a huge difference between the noisy, thirsty smoky aircraft at the dawn of the jet age and the modern Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s. The aviation industry isn’t known for standing still, or shying away from a big problem. We recently announced that for the first time ever, 1,500 US gallons of jet fuel has been produced from ‘Lanzanol’ – LanzaTech’s low carbon ethanol. We’ve been working with LanzaTech since 2011 so this is a huge milestone in our commitment to producing the world’s first jet fuel derived from waste industrial gases from steel mills via a fermentation process.

As we come closer and closer to the holy grail of sustainable aviation we caught up with Emma Harvey, head of our sustainability team who is working closely with LanzaTech and a host of industry colleagues to produce this new fuel which is set to deliver carbon savings of 65% compared to conventional jet fuel. There’s a long way to go yet but the progress has been encouraging. We asked Emma about the project and the bigger issue of sustainable aviation. Her answers are both inspiring and optimistic.

Dr Emma Harvey

Dr Emma Harvey

What is your role at Virgin Atlantic? 

As Head of Sustainability I oversee our existing Change is in the Air (CIITA) Virgin Atlantic sustainability programme, as well as having recently taken on responsibilities for our re-newed Virgin Holidays’ sustainability programme. Both include our environmental, supply chain and community investment (charity partnership) activities.

It’s a massive team effort. My job is to understand our key sustainability issues, and encourage people to focus on the actions that will make the biggest difference overall.  For example, for the airline, our single, biggest environmental issue is the carbon emissions associated with our aircraft fuel use. This pretty much dwarfs everything else we do. It’s clear what the priority is… and that we have a responsibility to address it.

A Dan Air Boeing 707

In the early days of aviation, jets used much more fuel than today’s efficient aircraft.

Environmental issues can be difficult for people to understand – how do you overcome this when trying to promote the importance of low carbon initiatives?

The impression I get is that many people see climate change as either abstract or insurmountable. It’s a real and urgent problem that needs addressing now to see off the worst effects. To me it’s all about the effect on people worldwide. Typically, the people who are already suffering the most are those from the world’s poorest communities.  But it is already affecting us all in all sorts of ways and will increasingly have significant consequences. There’s a massive imperative to take action straight away.  We all depend on this planet, and the reality is that this planet will survive very well without people – it’s us who can’t survive without it.

It also needs to be remembered that aviation is a part of modern life which brings massive social and economic benefits. It’s not simply a matter of wishing it away, as that would remove millions of people’s livelihoods. For me it’s about how we can all get involved to do things better.

How has the aviation industry’s approach to low carbon fuel/ biofuel developed over recent years? What have been some of the biggest lessons?

I think what many people don’t realise is for many years the aviation industry has been incredibly pro-active in seeking climate solutions. I came into aviation six years ago, and as an environmentalist, was genuinely surprised by the collaborative efforts that were already underway. There are some fantastically caring, knowledgeable, driven people working on environmental solutions within aviation. For example, I think our industry is unique in seeking a global carbon deal, where we are voluntarily looking to pay for carbon emissions from 2020, to offset the industry growth worldwide, while we seek technology solutions to reduce emissions at source.

Our CO2 emission target

Our CO2 emission target from our sustainability report

Industry members have actively got together to support pursuing a solution – seriously no mean feat, with such a diverse group. But it’s making progress and this progress is being played out right now on the world stage, via intense negotiations between UN body the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and nation states. I’m really hopeful that our industry can secure a deal that will raise billions for meaningful carbon-and eco-system-saving projects around the world. This is actually about the near future, we’re very close to a deal to start in 2020. We commend all airlines and states that support it.

Probably the single biggest thing an airline can do right now is to make sure it flies the most efficient aircraft possible in the most efficient way – full of passengers and cargo.  That’s something we’ve being doing at Virgin Atlantic for the last few years, through our £multi-billion fleet renewal programme.

After that, the general consensus is that the next big low carbon breakthrough will come from how we power the planes – i.e. the fuel. Unlike ground energy solutions, liquid drop-in fuels are the only realistic option for aviation for the foreseeable future. This is why Virgin has become so active in this space.

Aircraft engine

When did Virgin first start looking at low carbon fuel solutions?

Virgin Atlantic’s first biofuel flight took place in 2008 and was a big breakthrough for sustainable jet fuels. Many people at the time said it wasn’t technically possible but in typical Virgin Atlantic style, we convened the partners necessary internally and externally and made it happen. It was very much the sort of thing that drew me to my current role.

How was Virgin introduced to LanzaTech?

When I started at Virgin Atlantic in 2010, I kept hearing that Richard was asking what we were going to do next on sustainable fuels. Boeing colleague Darrin Morgan suggested LanzaTech might be interesting, and I remember the lightbulb moment when we spoke with LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren and she explained her technology for the first time. We were very excited! The sustainability profile was excellent (no land or food competition issues), the technology was highly innovative – who’d heard of making fuels from waste gases? not us! – and the commercial potential was already sounding promising. It looked to us like LanzaTech was out front. It had already progressed from an idea in the lab, to a successful pilot facility in New Zealand, to planned demo facilities in China. Plus LanzaTech kept telling us that because the fuel was made of an affordable, plentiful wastestream, they had a shot at getting the fuel in at a price on a par with conventional jet. That made it a much easier proposition to put to our Leadership Team! Of course, current fuel prices make this a bit trickier, but we’re working with LanzaTech on a range of innovative solutions to overcome that particular hurdle.

Why has Virgin moved away from biofuels in favour of LanzaTech?

LanzaTech is technically a biofuel. In much the same way that algae ‘eats’ CO2 to make fuels, LanzaTech’s patented microbe ‘eats’ CO to make fuels – that’s ethanol at stage one. Then there’s a complicated bit of chemistry that’s slightly beyond me, to convert ethanol into jet fuel.

But y’know, I don’t really care what we call these fuels – we talk about sustainable fuels, low carbon fuels, etc – the main issue is how does it perform against kerosene. And thanks to detailed analyses we know that this new fuel is likely to have 65% lower carbon emissions than conventional fossil jet fuel, precisely because it recycles carbon for a second use.

What are the next stages of the LanzaTech project?

Small initial batches of fuel have already been ‘Fit for Purpose’ (FFP) tested to show that the fuel performs as well as kerosene on a wide range of metrics. In some ways it also performs better. The new 1,500 USG of LanzaTech’s jet fuel allows us to work with LanzaTech and the OEMS (airframe and engine manufacturers) on any additional testing that might be needed to issue a ‘No Technical Objection’ letter to take to the regulators, so that we can undertake the world’s first proving flight with this breakthrough fuel.

All the data gathered through these processes will be formally submitted to the ASTM International committee (mainly made up of the OEMs) for them to review, in the hope of seeking ASTM approval to use the new ethanol-derived alcohol-to-jet (AtJ) fuel in commercial flights. Once we have these approvals (fingers crossed), it means that LanzaTech has a product it can sell – all part of the vital progress towards securing support for the world’s first commercial jet fuel plant.

Do you think we will find a low carbon solution that can compete with conventional fuel within the next few decades?

Yes!  I’m never complacent – this is a really, really hard and fairly expensive thing to do, requiring co-operation from a wide variety of partners – LanzaTech, government, airports, NGOs, industry (OEMs, steel mills, financiers, other airlines, our industry body IATA etc). Not to mention all our internal teams who’ve been fantastically supportive – from engineering, flight ops, treasury and fuel, government affairs, I’ve probably missed someone, if I have, I’m sorry – you know who you are!

The point is there is absolutely no way we can do it alone. We really need the people who get the challenges, but also the massive opportunity, and want to work with us to overcome the barriers. I’m genuinely excited that this programme appears to be gathering momentum along the way and we have a huge amount of support and excitement around it already. I want to end with a massive shout out to all those who’ve helped so far, and those who are about to (voluntarily!) get roped back in. I’m so excited and looking forward to working with everyone again on this fantastic breakthrough opportunity. This is what it’s all about and why I came to Virgin Atlantic.

 

Jodie Gray

Jodie’s new to Virgin Atlantic, but her love of air travel begun years ago when her dad surprised her with her first ever flight from Heathrow. She still gets excited about going to the airport but she likes travelling on foot too – her favourite way to explore a new place is with an early morning run.