Virgin to Fly Planes on Waste Gas by 2014

by | Oct 11, 2011

Virgin Atlantic Airways plans to fly commercial routes, by 2014, with a waste gas-based fuel that the company says has half the carbon footprint of standard aviation fuel.

Partners LanzaTech and Swedish Biofuels are creating the new fuel by capturing, fermenting and chemically converting waste gases from industrial steel production. Virgin Atlantic says this process recycles gases that would otherwise be burnt into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, and overcomes the land use issues associated with some earlier generation biofuels.

Virgin says this development will take the airline well beyond its pledge of a 30 percent carbon reduction per passenger km by 2020.

The partners are piloting the technology in New Zealand, with plans to commission a larger demonstration facility in Shanghai this year, and to start the first commercial operation in China by 2014.

Virgin Atlantic will be the first company to use this fuel, with plans for a demo flight in 12 to 18 months, followed by commercial use on routes from Shanghai and Delhi to London Heathrow. The company says it could then roll the fuel out to the rest of the world.

LanzaTech estimates that its process could apply to 65 percent of the world’s steel mills. The process can also apply to metals processing and chemical industries, growing its potential considerably further, the company said.

Virgin, LanzaTech, Swedish Biofuels and Boeing are working towards achieving the technical approval required for using new fuel types in commercial aircraft. The Roundtable for Sustainable Biofuels will advise the team to ensure the fuel produced meets key environmental, social and economic criteria.

Virgin Atlantic was the first commercial airline to test a bio-fuel flight, according to its president, Sir Richard Branson. In 2008 the company flew one of its Boeing 747 jumbo jets from London to Amsterdam on a biofuel composed of babassu oil and coconut oil.

Tony Tyler, the head of the International Air Transport Association and former chief executive of Cathay Pacific, told the New York Times he is “amazed” at the progress made with aviation biofuels.

Tyler said that just a few years ago, the idea of powering planes with biofuel seemed “very pie-in-the-sky and futuristic.” Now, he said, ““I believe that the most significant leap forward in the industry’s environmental performance in the coming years will be the commercial use of sustainable biofuels.”

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