Emma Harvey, Head of Sustainability at Virgin Atlantic, explains their award-winning approach to sustainable aviation fuels and how they are innovating towards the routine use of low carbon fuels, as a key part of Virgin Atlantic’s Change is in the Air (CIITA) sustainability programme.

What could be a bigger challenge than trying to develop sustainable solutions for aviation? And where better to go for it than at a pioneering brand like Virgin, with a values-driven founder like Sir Richard Branson? This is why I was drawn to the role of Head of Sustainability at Virgin Atlantic three and a half years ago. I thought if anywhere could do it, Virgin could. It’s now become a personal passion to achieve low carbon fuels for aviation – I can’t wait for us to do it. But it’s also a massive team effort, involving many people from our business, as well as from the wider Virgin Group, airline industry and other key organisations. But first a bit of context…

Aviation represents about 2% of worldwide carbon emissions, but it’s growing. The sector is critical to the global economy, contributing 3.5% of GDP and supporting 56.6 million jobs worldwide, and connecting families, communities and businesses around the world.  At Virgin Atlantic we’re committed to reducing our carbon emissions while maintaining these vital benefits.

We know that more than 99% of our direct carbon emissions come from our aircraft fuel burn, so fuel and carbon efficiency are our number one environmental priority: our target is to

reduce CO2 emissions by 30% per Revenue Tonne Kilometre (RTK – i.e. per the amount of passengers and cargo we carry) between 2007 and 2020.

To help us get there, we’re undertaking a variety of measures, such as introducing more fuel-efficient aircraft, implementing top-notch fuel efficiency practices and pioneering efforts to steer us away from dependency on fossil fuels and towards low carbon alternatives.

The development of sustainable aviation fuels fits closely with our company values of having a positive social and environmental impact on the world in which we operate. We’re particularly excited about our ground-breaking partnership with new, low carbon fuels company LanzaTech. LanzaTech has a patented, new, microbe-based technology to make ethanol from waste carbon monoxide (CO) gases from heavy industrial facilities, like steel mills, which can be converted via a second stage process into jet fuel. The CO gases would otherwise be flared off directly into the atmosphere as CO2, but this technology instead captures and ‘recycles’ the waste carbon for another use, resulting in up to 60% lower Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) carbon emissions compared to kerosene. 

L to R: Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech CEO; Richard Branson Virgin Atlantic Chairman; and Steve Ridgway former Chief Executive Virgin Atlantic. October 2011 press conference announcing our Virgin Atlantic LanzaTech partnership.

By using proprietary microorganisms, and a plentiful, low-cost feedstock, LanzaTech’s gas fermentation technology has no impact on food or land resources and has broad, commercial potential. Crucially it means that the fuel can be produced at a cost on a par with existing jet fuel prices, so there is no reason for airlines not to buy it. It’s also scalable – a single facility bolted onto one steel mill will provide enough fuel for all of our flights out of Shanghai as a 50:50 mix with kerosene (we believe

this is the standard that will be set by ASTM International, the process that approves new fuels for use in commercial aircraft), with plenty left over for other purposes.  And if this technology were applied to all eligible steel plants worldwide, it would provide 19% of the world’s commercial aviation fuel demand. No wonder Richard Branson described this process as...

One of the most exciting developments of our lifetime and a major breakthrough in the war on carbon.

LanzaTech has already successfully commissioned and run two demo-scale waste gas-to-ethanol facilities in China – putting them well on the way to development of a full alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) commercial plant in the next couple of years. If successful, it’ll be the first time a sustainable fuel has been used in routine, commercial aviation use – an extremely exciting possibility and the next step in our journey towards advanced fuel solutions.

Our efforts are really coming together and gaining traction,

and we’re delighted that the Virgin Atlantic-LanzaTech partnership has started to win wider recognition and awards: 2013 Observer Ethical Award Business Initiative Winner; 2013 Sustainable Biofuels Awards Aviation Winner; and finalist in the Ashoka Changemaker’s League of Intrapreneurs network. We’re massively appreciative that critical audiences understand the potential here and are encouraging us to move onwards and upwards. 

Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech Named 2013 Observer Ethical Award Winners: Business Initiative. L to R: Emma Howard Boyd of Jupiter Asset Management; Emma Harvey, Virgin Atlantic Head of Sustainability; Freya Burton, LanzaTech Communications Director; and Lucy Siegle, The Observer. Photo: Anna Gordon, The Observer

But we still have a significant number of hurdles to overcome if we want to see sustainable jet fuels into routine commercial use. First, our relationship with LanzaTech is a developmental one, and while all the signs are promising, we still face a number of challenges in getting to commercial scale. We’re definitely not complacent and we need all the help we can get. 

Creating a new sustainable aviation fuels market like this requires a range of leading organisations to work together, including airlines, suppliers, NGOs, scientists, policy-makers, industry, and financers. First off, it’s essential to get the sustainability profile right, so that we’re not in the territory of early generation biofuel mistakes and their unintended consequences, and we are achieving truly lower LCA carbon reductions. We’ve signed up to the gold standard, NGO-supported, independent 

certification scheme, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) to ensure all sustainability issues are addressed – such as protecting against deforestation, food and water competition, and ensuring significant LCA carbon reductions. (We ask all suppliers that want to work with us sign up to the RSB standard).

A bigger challenge is the financing and commercialisation of any emergent new technologies. At the moment, the landscape consists of a number of early stage companies, trying to scale through the development stages – from lab, to pilot, to demo plant, to commercial facility. To do this generally requires significant investment: no supplier has made it yet, and no one is completely sure who the ‘winners’ will be (although thanks to the work of the Carbon War Room, we now have much better visibility of the market than we used to, and so an idea of the front runners).

We’re definitely not complacent and we need all the help we can get.

There is clearly a demand for sustainable aviation fuels: airline membership of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) now accounts for 32% of world commercial jet fuel demand – so there are many airlines wanting to buy. But as the aviation industry is lean, airlines are generally not in a position to finance new companies, especially early stage, higher risk ones – or to pay significantly more for new fuels. However, At Virgin we’ve realised that as per our partnership with LanzaTech, we can use our position in the market as pioneer and potential buyer, offering leading suppliers purchasing agreements so they can use them to leverage the right investment opportunities.

We also need the support of policy makers, in terms of creating a positive policy environment for the development of next generation, sustainable jet fuels – for example in terms of incentive mechanisms and funding support for suppliers. At the moment, incentives tend to favour ground fuel and energy suppliers and we’d like to see a level playing field encouraging aviation fuels too.

We look forward to working with all key stakeholders and our partners to turn this exciting challenge into a real-world, commercial reality.

For more information about our Change is in the Air (CIITA) programme, including our CIITA reports and sustainable fuels programme and awards, please visit: www.virgin-atlantic.com/changeisintheair. 

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