The first commercial airliner to cross the Atlantic on a purely high-fat, low-emissions fuel on Tuesday flew from London to New York in a step toward achieving what supporters called “jet zero.”
The Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 flight was powered without using fossil fuels, relying on so-called sustainable aviation fuel made up largely of tallow and other waste fats.
“The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it,” said Virgin founder Richard Branson, who was aboard the flight with others including corporate and government officials, engineers and journalists.
The British Department for Transport, which provided ￡1 million (US$1.27 million) to plan and operate the flight, called the test a “huge step towards jet zero” to make air travel more environmentally friendly, although large hurdles remain in making the fuel widely available.
While governments have long talked about decarbonizing air travel, the transition has been moving at the pace of a dirigible.
Sustainable aviation fuel, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 70 percent, is the best near-term way for the international aviation industry to achieve its net zero target by 2050, the US Department of Energy said, although it called the goal aspirational.
The US Government Accountability Office said that while domestic production of the fuel had risen from about 7.6 million liters in 2016 to 59.81 million liters last year, it accounted for less than 0.1 percent of the jet fuel used by major US airlines.
It was also a drop in the bucket compared with the goal of producing 3.8 billion liters a year set in 2018 by the US Federal Aviation Administration.
Virgin Atlantic vice president of corporate development Holly Boyd-Boland said the flight shows that the fuel can power existing aircraft, but added that the challenge is ramping up production to “get to enough volume so that we’re flying more sustainable aviation fuel every day.”
The group Aviation Environment Federation said the aviation industry was making misleading claims about the impact of sustainable fuel on carbon emissions.
“The idea that this flight somehow gets us closer to guilt-free flying is a joke,” federation policy director Cait Hewitt said.
Sustainable aviation fuel represents “around 0.1 percent of aviation fuel globally and will be very hard to scale up sustainably,” she said.
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