Nov 28, 2023 - Technology

Virgin's voyage is a milestone for cleaner jet fuel

Illustration of an airplane's contrail forming a smiley face

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean a Boeing 787 Dreamliner is mid flight — but this is no ordinary voyage.

Driving the news: The Virgin Atlantic trip on Tuesday will be the first commercial widebody airliner crossing 100% powered by "sustainable aviation fuels."

  • It's a mix of hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (or HEFA, because IMHO the world needs more acronyms) and synthetic aromatic kerosene.
  • Per Virgin, it has 70% lower "lifecycle" emissions — that is, including production and other steps through combustion — than regular fuel.

Why it matters: Carbon emissions from aviation are around 2% of the global energy-related total, and they're growing.

  • Alternative fuels, alongside batteries and hydrogen in some use cases, could help tame this CO2 as more people and goods fly worldwide.

Zoom in: SAFs do 65% of the work in the net-zero by 2050 pathway charted by the International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group.

  • That's far more than batteries, hydrogen and efficiency gains in their plan.

What they're saying: The flight is an "important milestone" in the quest to eventually use SAFs at scale, DBRS Morningstar analysts wrote in a note, "providing a high profile demonstration of the viability of the technology."

  • "This is really critical because SAF is the most readily available decarbonization mechanism that aviation has today," Joey Cathcart of climate and energy think tank RMI tells Canary Media.

Catch up fast: Tuesday morning's journey follows the recent transatlantic flight of a Gulfstream G600 business jet using 100% SAFs.

Yes, but: A lot would need to break right for SAFs to really, yes, take flight.

  • Right now SAFs are a rounding error in aviation energy use.
  • Morningstar describes a suite of challenges. Think safety questions before regulators can bless blends over 50% to production bottlenecks to high costs.
  • They currently can cost anywhere from two to nine times more than conventional jet fuels, they write.

What we're watching: The Democrats' 2022 climate law provides a $1.25-per-gallon credit for producers of SAFs that cut emissions by 50%, and the incentive grows for even cleaner fuels.

  • But it's not clear whether the time-limited credit and other incentives that begin in 2025 will spur much new production.

The bottom line: Today's flight is important, but SAFs are still a long way from being a real weapon against global warming.

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