The first transatlantic flight by a large passenger plane powered only by green fuels has taken off on Tuesday from London’s Heathrow to New York’s JFK airport.
Operated by Virgin Atlantic, the flight is a one-off of its kind so far, and is not carrying fare-paying passengers.
So-called sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can be made from a variety of sources, including crops, household waste and cooking oils.
For this flight, a Boeing 787 has been filled with 50 tones of SAF. Two types are being used, with 88 percent derived from waste fats and the rest from the wastes of corn production in the US.
Following test and analysis, the flight was approved by UK regulator the Civil Aviation Authority earlier this month. A number of companies have been involved in the project including engine maker Rolls-Royce and energy giant BP.
Green fuels or SAF can help bring down emissions
The aviation industry is particularly difficult to decarbonize, but airline bosses view SAF as the most effective tool available to help bring its net emissions down to zero.
Planes still emit carbon when using SAF, but the industry says the “lifecycle emissions” of these fuels can be up to 70 percent lower.
Shai Weiss, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said the airline’s flight on Tuesday was “proving… that fossil-derived fuel can be replaced by sustainable aviation fuel”.
“It’s really the only pathway to decarbonizing long-haul aviation over and above having the youngest fleet in the sky,” he told the BBC’s Today program. “It is a really momentous achievement.”
However, he said there was not enough SAF currently, and added that due to the fuel being more expensive, flight prices would end up being higher.
Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson admitted it was “going to take a while” before there was enough SAF for everybody to use.
“But you have to start somewhere,” he told the BBC. “And if we didn’t prove it can be done, you would never, ever get sustainable aviation fuel.”
SAF is already used in small amounts, blended with traditional jet fuel, but accounts for less than 0.1% of the aviation fuel consumed around the world.
It currently costs more than kerosene, and relatively small amounts are made. Aircraft are usually only allowed to use up to 50% in a blend.
Airlines see the first long-haul flight of a large passenger plane using 100% SAF as a significant milestone. But experts say such fuels are not a magic bullet.
Dr Guy Gratton, associate professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University, said: “We can’t produce a majority of our fuel requirements this way because we just don’t have the feedstocks. And even if you do, these fuels are not true ‘net zeros’.”
He said the growing use of SAF had to be treated as “a stepping stone towards future, genuinely net zero technologies”.