Following its successful bid for UK government funding of £1 million ($1.2m), Virgin Atlantic says it expects to conduct the first-ever net zero transatlantic flight to be powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel in November. The airline has put together a consortium with six partners – Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Imperial College London, University of Sheffield, ICF and Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) – and is forming up to seven working groups for what it describes as a highly challenging project. Virgin is targeting the Rolls-Royce engine-powered Boeing 787 flight between London Heathrow and New York JFK to carry non-paying passengers, subject to approval by regulators, a representative from the airline told a UK SAF conference. The flight is part of the UK government’s ‘Jet Zero’ strategy to decarbonise the UK aviation sector, with SAF as one of the main tools for achieving a target of net zero emissions by 2050. To create a demand for SAF, the government is introducing a mandated obligation on fuel suppliers from 2025. A Department for Transport (DfT) official said a second consultation on the mandate will be launched shortly, with a final policy decision expected later this year.
Virgin is looking to acquire around 60 tonnes of HEFA fuel with a 12% synthetic aromatic content, of which 45-50 tonnes will be used for the transatlantic flight and the remainder for testing and approvals purposes, Luke Ervine, the airline’s Head of Sustainability, informed delegates at the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Supply Chain Initiative event in Leeds organised by Innovate UK KTN, a government agency tasked with accelerating the creation of a UK SAF industry, and supported by the DfT and industry group Sustainable Aviation.
“We’d love to have passengers onboard but that is going to involve a lot of conversations at a high level with the UK CAA and DfT,” said Ervine. “Everything will be grounded in safety and we will be led by the approvals process.”
He said the airline was currently considering commercial agreements with potential UK suppliers for the HEFA fuel requirement and the synthetic aromatic kerosene would need to be imported from the United States as there was only one supplier at present.
Virgin is working with the University of Sheffield on fuel analysis and ICF on lifecycle assessment and emissions reduction validation. Another working group, involving RMI and Imperial College, will focus on climate-warming contrail formation to better understand the roles SAF and route planning can play in their avoidance. US-based RMI has recently formed a cross-sector task force, which includes Imperial College, to explore opportunities to address the warming impact of contrails.
Imperial’s Dr Marc Stettler told the conference non-CO2 effects, particularly from ice crystal contrail formations in the upper atmosphere caused by water vapour and soot particles from jet engine exhausts, were at least as important as CO2 in terms of the overall climate impact of aviation, which taken together contribute around 3.5% to total anthropogenic radiative forcing.
Pointing to research carried out by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), Stettler said there was evidence that cleaner-burning jet fuels made from sustainable sources can produce 50-70% fewer ice crystal contrails at cruising altitude. Given that only a small number of flights, particularly those flying at dusk or dawn, or in wintertime, were responsible for most of the warming contrails, he suggested there were potentially significant climate benefits by targeting the use of SAF on these flights.
In addition to the use of SAF, the Virgin flight will focus attention on flight efficiency and route optimisation, and to ensure it is completely net zero, residual emissions will be removed through biochar carbon credits purchased from the carbon market.
“We intend collecting all the data and create an open source information platform across industry stakeholders to share the lessons learned and help others with their own operations,” said Ervine.
Hazel Schofield, Deputy Head of Low Carbon Fuels at the UK Department for Transport, said the government mandate would ensure 10% of UK jet fuel by 2030, around 1.5 billion litres, was made up of SAF produced from wastes, with a separate target for power-to-liquid fuels. A cap would be placed on HEFA fuels to encourage new-generation fuels produced from gasification/FT and alcohol-to-jet technologies.
She said the impending government consultation would include full details of what will be included in the legislation and how the 2030 target was to be achieved. The government is also setting up a SAF clearing house to help potential UK SAF producers access testing capacity in the UK for certification purposes rather than ship fuel abroad for testing. Schofield said the DfT hoped to announce a delivery partner shortly.
Other than decarbonisation, she said the government had three main priorities for setting up a UK SAF industry: fuel resilience so the UK was not reliant on imported fuels, opportunities for UK green economic growth and also for green jobs. However, there were four barriers to investment in SAF:
- Feedstock access;
- Technologies required for conversion;
- Construction of plants; and
- Revenue uncertainty
She said the government has commissioned an independent review of the challenges and a report would be published shortly, after consideration by ministers.
“Yes, there has been a lot of progress and we have moved forward over the last year but there is certainly a lot more to do,” she concluded.
Also speaking at the conference, Jonathon Counsell, Group Head of Sustainability at International Airlines Group and Chair of the Jet Zero Council’s SAF Delivery Group, said that to achieve the 10% by 2030 target, five commercial-scale SAF production plants needed to be under construction by 2025.
“These plants will therefore need to hit financial close by mid-2024, so policies will need to be in legislation by the end of this year or certainly in the first half of next year,” he said.
“We recognise the mandate can create a demand signal but this needs to be supplemented by some form of price stability mechanism, such as we’ve seen in other renewable industries and we strongly feel it’s needed for SAF.”
To ensure price certainty and reduce investor risk, Counsell suggested a proven policy instrument such as Contracts for Difference should be implemented by the government.
The Jet Zero Council is a government/industry body set up in 2020 with the objective to accelerate delivery of net zero emissions for the UK aviation sector, with a focus on areas needing policy support. Counsell’s SAF Delivery Group has three sub-groups responsible for the mandate’s development, SAF commercialisation and technologies and feedstocks required for SAF production. Twelve financial institutions are now participating in the commercialisation sub-group, said Counsell.
He reported overseas interest in the JZC concept. “We have had conversations with other countries who would like to replicate the Council. We are supporting the establishment of a JZC in Australia and engaged in discussions with Spain and Ireland,” he said.
Ministers responsible for the Department for Transport and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy co-chair the Council. The latter was broken up in a reshuffle last week to create a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which is led by former Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps.
Image (Boeing): Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9