Virgin Atlantic just crossed the ocean using sustainable aviation fuel — here’s what that actually means

Virgin Atlantic has achieved a significant milestone in aviation history by successfully crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a jetliner powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). This groundbreaking flight from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport marks the first time a commercial plane has completed a transatlantic journey using 100% SAF instead of traditional kerosene-based fuel.

The flight, operated by a Virgin Atlantic 787 Dreamliner equipped with twin Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines, serves as a proof of concept for the aviation industry’s ambitious plan to decarbonize in the coming years and decades. Although the flight did not carry paying passengers, it was attended by notable figures including airline founder Richard Branson, CEO Shai Weiss, Britain’s transport minister Mark Harper, and other executives, politicians, and media personnel.

Sustainable aviation fuel is derived from waste products such as cooking oils, animal fats, and byproducts of corn production. While SAF still produces emissions when burned, its overall “lifecycle” emissions are up to 70% lower compared to fossil-based fuels. This reduction is attributed to the fact that SAF emits carbon that had previously been absorbed by plants and animals, thereby avoiding the introduction of new carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

The aviation industry currently accounts for 2% to 3% of global emissions, making it one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonize. Alternative energy forms like electricity are not yet advanced enough to power long-haul flights, and the longest and most emission-intensive routes typically involve crossing oceans and continents, leaving no greener alternative method of transport.

To achieve their goal of reaching “net zero” emissions by 2050, airlines have embraced SAF as a crucial component of their decarbonization strategy. They project that SAF will contribute to approximately 65% of the emissions reductions they aim to achieve by 2050, alongside other technologies such as direct carbon capture.

Despite the promise of SAF, its widespread adoption faces several challenges. Commercial engines are currently not certified to fly on SAF alone, with the limit set at a blend of 50% SAF. The flight conducted by Virgin Atlantic received special approval from U.K. regulators and will return to London using regular fuel.

Additionally, the availability and production of SAF remain limited, accounting for less than 0.1% of aviation fuel used worldwide. Its scarcity and high costs make widespread adoption without government support virtually impossible. The U.S. has passed legislation, such as the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which includes credits for SAF production to facilitate scaling up production.

Critics argue that SAF should be viewed as a stepping stone rather than a complete solution due to potential environmental impacts associated with its production, including land diversion for agricultural purposes. Cat Hewitt, policy director at the Aviation Environment Federation, suggests that flying less is the most effective way to reduce aviation emissions until genuinely zero-emission technology becomes available.

Nevertheless, Tuesday’s flight by Virgin Atlantic raises awareness of SAF and its potential to make some positive impact. Fuel producers, airline executives, and engine manufacturers are actively collaborating with regulators to seek approval for using up to 100% SAF on commercial flights.

In conclusion, Virgin Atlantic’s historic transatlantic flight powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel represents a significant step towards decarbonizing the aviation industry. While challenges remain in terms of certification, availability, and costs, SAF has emerged as a promising option to reduce emissions in the sector. Continued collaboration between industry stakeholders and government support will be crucial in accelerating the adoption of SAF and achieving the industry’s ambitious decarbonization goals.

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