The UK government has revealed it expects the first-ever net zero transatlantic flight to take place as early as next year, with an aircraft to be powered solely by 100% sustainable aviation fuel. The announcement came during a visit to the US by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who during a meeting with airline executives invited the international sector to work closely with the government to deliver the demonstrator flight. The government says it is committed to drive forward the SAF industry, which had the potential to deliver significant carbon savings, improve domestic fuel security, support thousands of green jobs and put flying on a more sustainable path. It acknowledged that current jet fuel specifications do not allow flights to solely use 100% SAF but did not elaborate on how this would be overcome on the net zero flight beyond saying SAF use would need to be “complemented by additional decarbonisation measures to be fully net zero” and referenced greenhouse gas removals.
Currently one of the highest single emitters of greenhouse gases, the government said “aviation is one of our biggest challenges when it comes to making transport green, but the investment and innovations such as SAF are there to make guilt-free flying a reality.”
The new transatlantic initiative has resulted from the Jet Zero Council partnership between industry and government that aims to drive delivery of new technologies and innovative ways to cut aviation emissions, while supporting the UK economy. It is estimated a UK SAF industry could support up to 5,200 UK jobs directly, as well as a further 13,600 through global exports, with an annual turnover that could reach £2.3 billion ($2.8bn) by 2040.
“This trailblazing net zero emissions flight, a world first, will demonstrate the vital role that sustainable aviation fuel can play in decarbonising aviation in line with our ambitious net zero targets,” said Shapps. “That’s not just great news for the environment, it’s great news for passengers who will be able to visit the Big Apple without increasing damaging greenhouse gas emissions.”
The government said it was committed to accelerating the testing and approval of 100% SAF “to unlock the full decarbonisation potential of this technology.” It said delivering the transatlantic flight would help gather data needed to support ongoing and future work to test and certify SAF, “while exploring how engine efficiency improvements, flight optimisation and greenhouse gas removals can contribute to achieving net zero flights.”
Described as a “pioneering test flight”, the transatlantic initiative will be supported by up to £1 million of competition funding to help increase understanding of commercial flights using 100% SAF. It will be open to all airlines covering non-stop UK-US routes, “welcoming their collaboration with wider aviation and fuel stakeholders across the SAF supply chain.” After an initial expression of interest phase opening on May 14 and closing on June 12 2022, successful airlines will be invited to submit a full stage application, following which the funding will be made available competitively to support the testing, research and personnel costs of the initiative.
“This flight, driven through collaboration and bold ambition, is a perfect example of how innovation can and will shape our future lives,” said Indro Mukerjee, CEO of Innovate UK, which is running the competition with the Department for Transport. “It is only by working together that we will see the transformative change needed to deliver on the commitments to meet net zero.”
Aero engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce has been testing its large commercial engines on 100% SAF over the last year. “We have the technology to help the UK government achieve its objectives and we look forward to working closely with them to deliver this milestone transatlantic flight,” said Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce. “Just over 100 years ago, Rolls-Royce powered the first-ever transatlantic flight and now we have the innovation and expertise to power the next generation of sustainable aircraft.”
As well as the fuel specifications barrier, the government said it was working with industry on other challenges preventing a higher uptake of SAF, such as high fuel production costs, technology risk at commercial scale and feedstocks availability. It confirmed it was exploring a SAF mandate, supporting the UK SAF industry with £180 million ($220m) of funding over the next three years and establishing a fuel testing clearing house in the UK. In addition to the £180 million funding, £400 million of funding is being made available through a government partnership with Breakthrough Energy Catalyst to drive private sector investment into the next generation of green technologies, through which UK SAF projects can seek additional capital.
The government is aiming to confirm a SAF mandate, as well as specific targets, timescales and scheme design following a second consultation this year. At a fifth meeting of the Jet Zero Council last month, the government launched the Zero Emission Flight Delivery Group that is made up of aviation experts from across industry and government who will work together to realise zero emission flight.
“UK airlines strongly support the development of a UK SAF industry, which will play a vital role in helping our sector deliver net zero emissions by 2050, as we are committed to doing,” commented Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive of trade body Airlines UK, on the transatlantic initiative. “This announcement will provide additional momentum and, alongside the recent £180 million in Treasury support for the development of new UK SAF plants, demonstrates the commitment of government to making SAF a key part of the decarbonisation of aviation. We now need to turbocharge production in order to build the initial three SAF plants by 2025 and UK airlines have shown real commitment to making this happen with our partnerships with Phillips 66, Velocys and LanzaTech.
“We look forward to working with ministers through the Jet Zero Council to continue to explore mechanisms to attract the required private investment – in addition to a planned mandate – so we can help deliver the government’s 10% SAF uptake goal by 2030.”