The first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic powered only by sustainable aviation fuel will take off next year, a milestone the industry hopes will encourage greater investment in the new technology.
The use of the fuel would mean that the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 test flight between Heathrow, London, and John F Kennedy airport, New York, would be the first transatlantic flight to achieve net zero emissions, the UK government said.
Sustainable aviation fuels, or SAF, are not fossil fuel based and are largely made from forestry or agricultural waste. Use of these fuels can reduce carbon emissions by about 70 per cent.
For Virgin’s flight to achieve “net zero” status, the remaining 30 per cent of the emissions would be offset by an investment in carbon removal technology, the UK government said.
Safety regulators only allow a maximum of 50 per cent SAF blended with kerosene to be used in commercial jet engines, but the UK’s transport minister Baroness Vere said the flight would demonstrate that it was safe to fully power a passenger aircraft with the new fuels.
Aviation is relying almost entirely on SAFs to cut its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, given that other cleaner technology such as electric or hydrogen powered aircraft are still unproven at scale.
The fuels are significantly more expensive than traditional kerosene, however, and are still only produced in tiny amounts.
The industry estimates that about 450bn litres a year of SAF will be needed by 2050. Annual SAF production in 2021 was only 100mn litres.
The UK put a symbolic £1mn towards supporting the Virgin flight, and has pledged £165mn to accelerate the commercialisation of SAF plants. It has also set a mandate that 10 per cent of jet fuel comes from sustainable sources by 2030, to help stimulate demand.
But airlines and airports have called on the government to do much more, notably by creating “contracts for difference” (CFDs) to agree a set price for the fuel underwritten by the government, similar to those the state has used for nuclear and offshore wind projects.
Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive, said the government support was welcome but was “a drop in the ocean” compared with the money being spent in the US to support green energy development.
“We need the government to create an environment which promotes and really encourages SAF in the UK,” he said.
One other aviation executive welcomed the government’s work, but said the “big prize” was a price stability mechanism, without which “we won’t see these UK plants being built and we’ll have to import”.
Vere said no decisions on further support had been made, but did not rule out CFDs and insisted that the UK was “at the forefront” of SAF production, with a target of five new plants under construction in the country by 2025.
“This sort of industry will replace many of the old industries that have declined,” she said.
Weiss said driving down the cost of SAF was a “multiplayer” problem that would need government, airlines, oil majors and corporate customers to all put in more investment.
“There is not one body who can solve this on their own. The premium will be shared by everyone so we can make sure flying can continue in a sustainable way.”
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