Virgin claims its new jet fuel will have half the carbon footprint of others

Virgin claims its new jet fuel...
Virgin Atlantic Airways is planning to capture gases from steel mills, to create a new low-carbon jet fuel (Photo: Eluveitie)
Virgin Atlantic Airways is planning to capture gases from steel mills, to create a new low-carbon jet fuel (Photo: Eluveitie)
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Virgin Atlantic Airways is planning to capture gases from steel mills, to create a new low-carbon jet fuel (Photo: Eluveitie)
Virgin Atlantic Airways is planning to capture gases from steel mills, to create a new low-carbon jet fuel (Photo: Eluveitie)

Three years ago, Virgin Atlantic Airways grabbed some headlines when it experimentally ran one of its 747s on a mixture of standard jet fuel and biofuel. While some called it a publicity stunt, it was the first time that a commercial airliner had flown using biofuel - albeit only in part of one of its four fuel tanks. Today, however, the airline announced that it's developing an aviation fuel that will have half the carbon footprint of conventional fuel. The carbon savings won't result from how cleanly the fuel burns, but from how it's obtained.

One of Virgin's partners in the project, LanzaTech, begins the process by capturing waste gases from steel mills. These gases, which would otherwise have been burnt into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, are instead fermented and chemically converted into jet fuel, using technology developed by another partner, Swedish Biofuels. It is estimated that the system should work with about 65 percent of the world's steel mills, and that it could also be applied to metals processing and the chemical industry.

Virgin plans to begin using the fuel in two to three years, on flights from Shanghai and Delhi to London Heathrow. A pilot plant is currently producing the fuel in New Zealand, with a larger demonstration plant scheduled to be commissioned in Shanghai later this year, and the first commercial plant to begin operation in China by 2014. After that, if all goes according to plan, additional facilities could be built in the UK and other locations around the world.

"With oil running out, it is important that new fuel solutions are sustainable, and with the steel industry alone able to deliver over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, the potential is very exciting" said Sir Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic. "This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel."

A demo flight using the new fuel should be taking place within 12 to 18 months.

The video below outlines the fuel-production process.

Yes, you\'ve made fuel for yourself from CO (why all the mystery Gizmag - do you really need to dumb it down that much for an American reader?) as a feedstock. Portraying it as sustainable vs green is clever PR, but it does little to nothing in terms of dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It could be argued that we\'ve discovered an even further excuse to dump even more CO2 into the atmosphere than that capped when jet fuel runs out. Branson\'s partner has created \"sustainable\" CO2 dumping, in other words.
It\'s also ironic that hydrogen is used in the process - a clean burning fuel on its own. However, even its water combustion product is a notorious greenhouse gas.
Fuel from steel mills - wow! This gives the impression that the steel industry is not smart enough to utilise its own waste products for its own benefits. Rubbish! I think you'll find most modern steel plants capture as much as possible of their off-gases for use as fuel in their other processes or to generate power, and doing so is far more efficient and environmentally friendly than making aircraft fuel from them. For those few places in far-off countries that don't capture their off-gases, why not just fund their gas capture for their own re-use, instead of making airline fuel (and all this fuss)? Is it merely attention seeking for Virgin in an attempt to make THEIR industry (rather than mine) look 'greener'?
New Zealand Air successfully tested ethanol as a jet fuel. Along with that, there is a new, full sized, ethanol plant in Emmetsburg Iowa, that will start up this winter and will be making ethanol from corn cobs and other bio mass. So "corn cob jet fuel will be available in a few weeks.
Also the recent cross country flight of a rather large solar/battery airplane should not be ignored. Along with that, futurist, Ray Kurtzweil, who predicted the world wide internet years before it happened, says that world solar electricity output is doubling every two years. So in as little as 16 years the world will get 100% of its electricity from solar (Spain is already at 40%) Solar panels are becoming more powerful, lighter, and cheaper all the time. So solar flight cannot be counted out. It is then probable that short air routes with solar planes holding smaller numbers of passengers may appear in a few years. That means free fuel and the fuel savings would finance a lot of research and development of solar aircraft.