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British Airline Virgin Atlantic Net Zero Flight

British airline Virgin Atlantic has won the U.K. Government’s Department for Transport competition to receive £1 million ($1.2 million) in funding to send the first-ever net-zero commercial flight across the Atlantic from London to New York. The flight will use 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and is planned to take off by the end of 2023.

Virgin Atlantic partners in this endeavor include Rolls-Royce engine makers, Boeing, Imperial College London, the University of Sheffield, Rocky Mountain Institute, and ICF.

The funding will support the cost of the initiative, including project management, staffing, fuel testing and certification, equipment, data gathering, research, as well as marketing, and communications.

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Virgin will use one of its Boeing 787s airliners, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines to make the journey from London Heathrow to New York’s John F Kennedy Airport in 2023.

The SAF used for the flight will primarily be made from waste oils and fats, such as those used in cooking oil. 

SAF will fully replace kerosene for this flight. This will help reduce carbon emissions by more than 70% vs. when conventional fossil jet fuel is used. The remainder of the carbon will be removed via biochar credits, making the flight a carbon-emissions net-zero operation. Biochar is a lightweight solid material that holds carbon and ashes taken from the atmosphere.

“This challenge recognizes the critical role that SAF has to play in decarbonizing aviation and the urgent collective action needed to scale production and use of SAF globally,” said Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic. “The research and results will be a huge step in fast-tracking SAF use across the aviation industry and supporting the investment, collaboration, and urgency needed to produce SAF at scale. Our collective ambition of net zero by 2050 depends on it.”

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The U.K. government estimates that the use of SAF will not only be good for the environment, but could create an industry with revenue of nearly $3 billion by 2040, and create over 5,000 jobs in the U.K. by 2035.

The funding is part of the Jet Zero strategy that the U.K. government launched in July 2022. The goal is to decarbonize the aviation sector by 2050 by primarily using SAF as the main source of fuel. The Jet Zero strategy also aims to achieve net zero for all domestic flights and England’s airport operations by 2040.

“At current rates, aviation is expected to become one of the largest emitting sectors by 2050,” notes the Department for Transport’s Jet Zero Strategy report. “We have to break the link between air travel and rising global temperatures. Aviation’s success must no longer damage the planet. That is why we have developed the Jet Zero Strategy – not only securing a more sustainable future for our climate, but also for our aviation industry, and the critical role it plays in boosting trade, tourism, and travel.”

Photo Courtesy Lukas Souza

So far, the strategy’s progress includes American energy company Phillips 66 providing the first commercially produced SAF in the U.K. In addition, the government will provide more funding and secure private financing to develop its own SAF plants, with the goal of having at least five plants under construction by 2025.

The transatlantic flight that Virgin will perform in 2023 using 100% SAF will allow for gathering the necessary data and testing to be able to certify higher blends of SAF in the future.  

“We are incredibly proud that our Trent 1000 engines will power the first ever flight using 100% SAF across the Atlantic,” said Rachael Everard, head of sustainability at Rolls-Royce. “The Trent 1000 can already be flown with a 50% blend of SAF on commercial flights and by the end of 2023 we will have proven that our whole family of Trent engines and business aviation engines are compatible with 100% SAF.”


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