[UPDATED] Virgin Atlantic’s historic Flight100 took off from London’s Heathrow Airport at 11:30 UK-time on 28 November, landing successfully at New York’s JFK International Airport. It marks the world’s first flight by a commercial airline across the Atlantic that’s 100% powered by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
While there were no paying passengers onboard, the airline’s Founder Sir Richard Branson was among those with a seat on the flight, which was flown on a Boeing 787 using Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.
It marks the culmination of a year of ‘radical collaboration’ by a Virgin Atlantic-led consortium, including Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Imperial College London, University of Sheffield, ICF and Rocky Mountain Institute, in partnership with Department for Transport, to help pave the way for the decarbonisation of long-haul aviation.
The aim is to demonstrate the capability of SAF (made from waste products) as a ‘safe drop-in replacement for fossil derived jet fuel’, compatible with today’s engines, airframes and fuel infrastructure – and the learnings will be shared with the wider aviation industry.
“The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it,” said Sir Richard Branson, Founder, Virgin Atlantic.
“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.”
It’s thought that SAF has a significant role in decarbonising aviation and the pathway to Net Zero 2050.
According to a statement released by Virgin Atlantic, SAF delivers CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70%. However, it represents less than 0.1% of global jet fuel volumes and fuel standards currently only allow for a 50% SAF blend in commercial jet engines.
It’s hoped that the milestone Flight100 flight will demonstrate that the challenge of scaling up production is one of ‘policy and investment’.
“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 decarbonising long haul aviation,” said Shai Weiss, Chief Executive Officer, Virgin Atlantic.
“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’s 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 Government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”
The SAF used on Flight100 is a unique dual blend of 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).
Acclerating the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
In September 2021, 60 companies in the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition (whose mission is to accelerate the deployment of SAF), agreed to work together accelerate the supply and use of SAF to reach 10% of global jet aviation fuel supply by 2030.
Among the signatory companies are Virgin Atlantic, Boeing (which has commitment to deliver 100% SAF-compatible airplanes by 2030) and Rolls-Royce, as well as a host of other leading organisations such as Airports Council International, Dubai Airports, Fraport, Heathrow Airport and Royal Schiphol Group.
It was hailed a major milestone on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050.
As reported, UK industry group Sustainable Aviation said in April that cost increases associated with the use of SAF means flights will become more expensive and demand will be hit.
In its Net Zero Carbon Road-Map, the aviation collective, which counts UK airlines, airports, manufacturers and air navigation service providers as members, also said the UK risked losing a potential of 60,000 jobs and its position as a global leader in air travel sustainability without more government support.
Commenting on Flight100 upon take off, the UK’s Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Today’s historic flight, powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel, shows how we can both decarbonise 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.”
Virgin Atlantic and Boeing completed the first commercial SAF test flight on a 747 in 2008.
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