Virgin Atlantic have successfully completed the first transatlantic large passenger flight powered only by sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The Boeing 787 flew from Heathrow Airport in London to JFK Airport in New York, BBC News reports. The flight was partly funded by the UK government, who declared it was “a significant UK aviation achievement”.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the airline’s flight in early December was “proving… that fossil-derived fuel can be replaced by sustainable aviation fuel”.
He added: “It’s really the only pathway to decarbonising long-haul aviation over and above having the youngest fleet in the sky. It is a really momentous achievement.”
SAF is the term used by the aviation industry to describe a non-fossil fuel derived jet fuel. It may sometimes be referred to as renewable jet fuel or biofuel. It is produced from biological or animal sources such as feedstock, household waste, and cooking oils.
SAF is designed to be chemically identical to conventional fossil fuels that are used to power jets, and in most cases the fuels can be safely mixed together. However, the recent Boeing 787 flight was the first long-haul passenger jet flight to be powered by 100% SAF. The use of SAF provides significant CO2 reductions compared to fossil fuels.
SAF also releases fewer polluting particles such as sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere when it is burnt. The fuel can be potentially produced from municipal waste that would otherwise be left to rot in landfill and produce harmful methane emissions, bringing a further environmental benefit.
However, there are still many hurdles to be overcome before SAF can be introduced to commercial airline use on a large scale. SAF is more expensive to produce than fossil fuels, so wide-scale use would lead to higher flight prices. Currently when blended with traditional fuel, SAF accounts for just 0.1% of worldwide aviation fuel consumption.
The UK government plans to make it a legal requirement that at least 10% of all fuel used by UK-registered flight operators should be SAF by 2030. Some experts believe that this will not be possible because there are just not enough biological or waste sources available to produce adequate amounts of SAF.
Furthermore, if more crops are grown specifically to produce SAF, this could cause further environmental damage and even food shortages through deforestation and overuse of land.
Virgin boss Richard Branson acknowledged that it was going to take some time before SAF became a truly viable alternative to fossil fuels. He told the BBC: “But you have to start somewhere. And if we didn’t prove it can be done, you would never, ever get sustainable aviation fuel.”
Dr Guy Gratton, associate professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University, said: “We can’t produce a majority of our fuel requirements this way because we just don’t have the feedstocks. And even if you do, these fuels are not true ‘net zeros’.”
The UK government is currently working with tech firms and innovators to develop hydrogen fuel as a further alternative source of energy and SAF.
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