With aviation one of the biggest contributors to CO2 emissions, finding new ways to cut back is crucial. Five years ago, Virgin Atlantic teamed up with LanzaTech to develop a new jet fuel made from the waste gases of industrial steel mills, and it seems the project has now borne fruit. The first 1,500 US gallons (5,678 L) of the low-carbon jet fuel has been produced, passing performance tests on the way to a possible proving flight by next year.
Back in 2008, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to use biofuel to power a commercial flight, even if the coconut and babassu oil mixture only made up a small proportion of the plane's overall fuel.
For the current project with LanzaTech, carbon would be captured from the waste gases of steel mills and fermented to create ethanol (a concoction the company calls "Lanzanol"), which is then converted into the jet fuel. While it won't necessarily burn any cleaner than existing fuels, analyses by the companies estimate that the method will reduce carbon emissions at the production stage by up to 65 percent.
LanzaTech says the process could be retrofitted into more than two thirds of the world's steel mills, with the potential to produce about 15 billion gallons of jet fuel each year. That may sound like a lot, but that figure only makes up around 20 percent of global annual consumption.
"This is a real game changer for aviation and could significantly reduce the industry's reliance on oil within our lifetime," says director of Virgin Atlantic, Sir Richard Branson. "Our understanding of low carbon fuels has developed rapidly over the last decade, and we are closer than ever before to bringing a sustainable product to the market for commercial use by Virgin Atlantic and other global airlines."
The fuel has passed its initial performance tests "with flying colors," and if it makes it through aviation industry approvals, its viability could be demonstrated in a proving flight in 2017. After that, the companies would seek permission to begin making use of the fuel in routine flights, with LanzaTech building a commercial processing plant for the fuel in the UK, to supply Virgin Atlantic and other airlines.