28 November, 2023

Transatlantic SAF powered flight success....

Virgin Atlantic has operated a flight between London Heathrow and New York JFK today flying with 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) marking the culmination of a year of radical collaboration, demonstrating the capability of SAF as a safe replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel. The Boeing 787 touched down a little after 19:04 this evening. 

SAF has a significant role to play in the decarbonization of long-haul aviation, and pathway to Net Zero 2050. The fuel, made from waste products, delivers CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70%, whilst performing like the traditional jet fuel it replaces.

While other technologies such as electric and hydrogen remain decades away, SAF can be used now. Today, SAF represents less than 0.1% of global jet fuel volumes and fuel standards allow for just a 50% SAF blend in commercial jet engines. Virgin Flight VIR100 will prove that the challenge of scaling up production is one of policy and investment, and industry and government must move quickly to create a thriving UK SAF industry.

As well as proving the capabilities of SAF, Flight100 will assess how its use affects the flight's non-carbon emissions with the support of consortium partners ICF, Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), Imperial College London and the University of Sheffield. The research will improve scientific understanding of the effects of SAF on contrails and particulates and help to implement contrail forecasts in the flight planning process. Data and research will be shared with industry, and Virgin Atlantic will continue its involvement with contrail work through RMI's Climate Impact Task Force, which is part-funded by Virgin Unite.

The SAF used on Flight VIR100 was a unique dual blend; 88% HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids) supplied by AirBP and 12% SAK (Synthetic Aromatic Kerosene) supplied by Virent, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corporation. The HEFA is made from waste fats while the SAK is made from plant sugars, with the remainder of plant proteins, oil and fibres continuing into the food chain. SAK is needed in 100% SAF blends to give the fuel the required aromatics for engine function. To achieve Net Zero 2050, the innovation and investment needed across all available feedstocks and technologies must be harnessed to maximize SAF volumes as well as continuing the research and development needed to bring new zero-emission aircraft to market. 

Shai Weiss, Chief Executive Officer, of Virgin Atlantic said: "Flight100 proves that Sustainable Aviation Fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it's the only viable solution for decarbonizing long-haul aviation. It's taken radical collaboration to get here and we're proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further. There is simply not enough SAF and it's clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by the government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we'll fly it."

Sir Richard Branson, Founder, of Virgin Atlantic said: "The world will always assume something can't be done, until you do it. The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone's benefit. Virgin Atlantic has been challenging the status quo and pushing the aviation industry to never settle and do better since 1984. Fast forward nearly 40 years, that pioneering spirit continues to be Virgin Atlantic's beating heart as it pushes the boundaries from carbon fibre aircraft and fleet upgrades to sustainable fuels.

I couldn't be prouder to be onboard Flight100 today alongside the teams at Virgin Atlantic and our partners, which have been working together to set the flight path for the decarbonization of long-haul aviation."

UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: "Today's historic flight, powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel, shows how we can both decarbonize transport and enable passengers to keep flying when and where they want.   This Government has backed today's flight to take-off and we will continue to support the UK's emerging SAF industry as it creates jobs, grows the economy and gets us to Jet Zero."

Dame Karen Pierce, His Majesty's Ambassador to the United States said: "This world first marks a crucial step in the UK's journey towards Jet Zero aviation emissions.

We look forward to continuing our close work alongside the US to increase the use of this pioneering fuel as we welcome the sustainable flights of the future."

Executive Director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Rick Cotton said: "As part of our agency-wide goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, the Port Authority strongly encourages and supports efforts by our airport stakeholders to reduce their carbon footprint and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We are thrilled to welcome the first transatlantic flight using 100% sustainable aviation fuel into John F. Kennedy International Airport and hope that the success of Virgin Atlantic's flight to New York will inspire the entire airport community to move forward with aggressive sustainability efforts."

Sheila Remes, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, Boeing said: "In 2008 Virgin Atlantic and Boeing completed the first commercial SAF test flight on a 747 and today we will accomplish yet another significant milestone utilizing a 787 Dreamliner. This flight is a key step toward our commitment to deliver 100% SAF-compatible aeroplanes by 2030. As we work toward the civil aviation industry's net-zero goal, today's historic journey highlights what we can achieve together."

Simon Burr, Group Director of Engineering, Technology & Safety, Rolls-Royce plc, said: "We are incredibly proud that our Trent 1000 engines are powering the first ever widebody flight using 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel across the Atlantic today. Rolls-Royce has recently completed compatibility testing of 100% SAF on all our in-production civil aero engine types and this is further proof that there are no engine technology barriers to the use of 100% SAF. The flight represents a major milestone for the entire aviation industry in its journey towards net zero carbon emissions."

Despite the joy of this milestone flight, SAF like this is not the only answer to a future of aviation that is harmless to the environment.  There isn't enough SAF around at the moment to power even a full 1% of flights operating this year.  Then, of course, you have to consider the energy used in the creation of SAF, the oil in the first place and the transportation of such raw products. There are many campaigners who offer the opinion that growing crops specifically to be converted to fuel would damage biodiversity as well as cause a mass of deforestation which would make it equally as bad as fossil fuels.  The Royal Society reports that the energy crops considered – rapeseed, miscanthus, and poplar wood – would require more than 50 per cent of the UK’s available agricultural land to replace aviation fuel completely.