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.