The new year is shaping up to be a momentous one for the aviation industry, as British airline Virgin Atlantic recently announced it will operate the world’s first transatlantic flight to achieve ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions. Scheduled to fly from London Heathrow to New York JFK in late 2023, the flight will be powered solely by sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF.
The airline plans to utilize SAF derived mainly from waste oils (like used cooking oil) and fats, aboard one of its flagship Boeing 787 jets, equipped with Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines. Virgin Atlantic says no plane or engine modifications will be needed for the test flight. Low-carbon SAFs, developed from a range of non-fossil fuel sources, like agricultural waste or cooking oils, are considered “drop-in” fuels—making them compatible with existing aircraft engines and supply infrastructure.
Virgin Atlantic says the use of 100 percent SAF reduces carbon emissions by over 70 percent when compared to conventional jet fuel. The remainder of the flight’s net zero-emissions target—net zero is defined as a balance between both greenhouse gasses emitted and removed—will be met via an investment in carbon-removal credits.
The aim of the flight—which is being supported, in part, by £1 million ($1.22 million) in U.K. government funding—is to help gather data and demonstrate that 100 percent SAF-powered jets are safe and viable, as the global aviation industry moves toward broader decarbonization goals.
Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said in a statement that the “the research and results,” of the flight “will be a huge step in fast-tracking SAF use across the aviation industry and support the investment, collaboration, and urgency needed to produce SAF at scale.”
The global aviation industry is responsible for more than two percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and is relying heavily on SAF technology to meet its net zero-carbon emissions goals by 2050, in line with United Nations targets to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
“When you look at 2050 as the goal for net-zero emissions, sustainable aviation fuels will play the biggest role in the decarbonization of aviation,” says Dr. Joshua Heyne, the director of the bioproducts, sciences, and engineering laboratory at Washington State University, whose research expertise is in the development of sustainable aviation fuels.
International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global trade association of airlines, projects that SAF will be behind 65 percent of the 2050 targets, with additional support coming from emerging electric and hydrogen technologies, as well as offset and carbon capture programs.
SAF proponents say the burgeoning industry around the alternative fuel source has further potential to bolster jobs and boost the economy, too.
However, SAF adoption is not without its hurdles. Currently, regulations only permit commercial aircraft to operate on up to 50 percent SAF, blended with traditional jet fuel.
“Virgin Atlantic’s flight powered by 100 percent SAF will hopefully pave the way for regulations to be updated and allow planes to fly on 100 percent SAF versus 50 percent SAF blend at the moment,” says Nicolas Jammes, a spokesperson for IATA.