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Virgin Atlantic Squeezing Jet Fuel Out Of Industrial Waste

Even though airlines are just starting to adopt traditional biofuels, Virgin is already ditching them for a new fuel made from the leftovers of steel manufacturing.

A number of commercial airlines have started to explore the possibility of using biofuels to both save cash and decrease emissions; Virgin Atlantic led the pack in 2008 with the first biofuel-powered test flight. As its competitors catch up, Virgin is already leaving them behind—this time, with a plan to fly commercial routes using synthetic fuel made out of industrial waste.

The airline is using technology from LanzaTech and Swedish Biofuels that captures and chemically treats industrial waste from steel mills and turns it into ethanol that can be converted into biofuel (see the video below). Virgin claims that LanzaTech's process has major potential—the technique could be retrofitted onto 65% of the world's steel mills, which could produce around 15 billion gallons of jet fuel, or 19% of the current world aviation fuel demand.

LanzaTech's process is adaptable to other kinds of industrial waste, but Virgin is sticking with steel for now, simply because there is so much of it produced every year (1.4 billion tons annually). "The wholly owned and patented unique gas fermentation technology uses a microbe to convert gas (rich in CO and CO2) into fuels and chemicals," explains Joanne Foster, Senior Press Officer at Virgin Atlantic, in an email. "This microbe can utilize a range of gas streams as a carbon source and so it’s likely that there will be a range of solutions—more sustainable drop-in fuels are likely to come from a number of sources and we believe that prioritising waste streams for conversion into fuel is likely to be a sensible way to progress for the time being."

It's not that Virgin is abandoning more traditional biofuels. In fact, LanzaTech's process technically creates biofuel—it just doesn't use biomass as an input (though it could).

As Foster explains, "What's important is that 'biofuels are done well'—taking into account the full range of environmental, social and economic impacts—for example, by making sure that fuel feedstock production doesn't cause food or water to be diverted away from communities, or doesn't cause rainforests to be felled, and that total lifecycle carbon emissions really are lower than those associated with the fossil fuel alternatives." LanzaTech's process doesn't require any arable land, it grabs waste from already-occurring industrial production, and it's less carbon-intensive than traditional jet fuel. Does it get much better than that?

Virgin expects to run test flights using the fuel in the next 18 months and begin commercial operations in China by 2014, at which point the fuel should be cost-competitive with standard kerosene jet fuel.

[Image: Wikipedia]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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    This is a simply necessity that is happening.  As people become more populous and consume more resources, we need to find more efficient ways of consuming those resources.  Although the world still seems infinite to us, we are an expanding population using finite resources.  The more we expand, the more efficient we must be. Virgin Atlantic's green fuel initiative is one of many excellent baby steps we need to take.

  • Bette Boomer

    We’re eco-optimists.How could we not be when people like
    Richard Branson pledge to use “green aviation fuel” on Virgin Atlantic planes
    within 2 to 3 years. Virgin Atlantic already has invested $1.4 billion on ultra-efficient
    jet engines which decreased its dependence on fossil fuels this year. Many MacArthur "genius" grant awards this year went to innovators
    thinking out of the box for creative change in education, technology, the environment
    and more. Loud voices in America call for public policy changes from the top down
    and the grassroots up like Tom Steyer, the billionaire hedge fund manager, now a
    major player in philanthropy at The Center for the Next Generation. Matt James,
    the former Kaiser Family Foundation executive and president of The Center is a
    passionate voice for moving America toward an advanced safe, reliable energy economy
    and issues that reflect the well-being of children and families – who are our
    future. We say to our entrepreneurs and innovators –our world needs you. Keep surprising
    us with sparks of foresight.