Plane Powered By 100% Biofuel Crosses The Atlantic Ocean

The plane is the world’s first commercial airline that crossed the Atlantic with a biofuel made from waste fats and plant sugars—signaling a more sustainable future for air travel.

Virgin Atlantic recently made a historic flight that crossed the Atlantic, with the very first commercial plane to use 100 percent Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). According to the official press release, the plane (called Flight100) left from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York’s JFK, proving that airlines can entirely avoid using fossil fuels.

Virgin Atlantic’s “Flight 100”
Virgin Atlantic’s “Flight 100”/Photo from the Virgin Group website

This is exciting news for the aviation industry as it tries to pursue a more sustainable future. Most SAF fuels produce less carbon emissions than kerosene fuels, according to Nicolás Rivero of The Washington Post. Virgin Atlantic’s press release adds that the plane’s particular SAF is made of waste fats and plant sugars. It performs almost exactly like standard, petroleum-based jet fuel, yet “delivers CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70 percent.”

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A Work In Progress

The airline’s press release expounds on the state of SAF in the aviation industry, writing that it represents less than 0.1 percent of fuel consumption across airlines. Virgin Atlantic’s Flight100 is more outlier than the common rule. Most plane engines can’t use SAF and creating the fuel itself is a costly process, reports The Washington Post

Billionaire and Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson (third from the left) with the crew of Flight100
Billionaire and Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson (third from the left) with the crew of Flight100/Photo from the Virgin Group website

In order to achieve a Net Zero 2050, the aviation industry will need major investments and more innovation in alternative fuel development. Still, any progress is still progress, given how aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions that have exacerbated climate change, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. A study from the Manchester Metropolitan University adds that the aviation industry contributes 3.5% of the world’s carbon emissions. 

Virgin Atlantic’s press release explains that unlike other sustainable solutions like electric and hydrogen—which are still technologies that are decades away—airlines can use SAF immediately. 

Potential Problems

The BBC’s Chris Baraniuk presents potential issues that could arise from the use of Virgin Atlantic’s particular biofuel in a feature on its historic flight. Though SAF is a renewable energy source that emits far less CO2, its costly components can pose a problem. Assuming that airlines use a similar fuel made with plant sugars, the industry would require approximately 125 million hectares of land just to grow the sugar canes needed to produce this fuel. This is a resource-heavy endeavor that takes up a lot of land—and even then, the amount of sugar that this would yield may still not be enough to power the world’s planes. 

Sugarcanes that provide plant sugars for SAF require millions of hectares of land
Sugarcanes that provide plant sugars for SAF require millions of hectares of land/Photo by Josh Withers via Unsplash

Experts and skeptics alike agree that there’s no surefire way to create net zero, sustainable flights the way Virgin Atlantic intends to. “The science would suggest that there really is no such thing as sustainable aviation,” argues Josh Moos in the BBC feature. He states that the only way to lessen emissions is to reduce demand for air travel, either by implementing a levy on frequent flyers or increasing the industry’s taxes overall. 

Hoping for Better

Whether or not the use of SAF is more troublesome than the issue it’s trying to solve, Virgin Atlantic’s recent flight proves that a biofuel-powered flight can be done. Perhaps the attempt itself will pave way for better, less costly and resource-heavy solutions in the future. 

“The world will always assume something can’t be done, until you do it. The spirit of innovation is getting out there and trying to prove that we can do things better for everyone’s benefit,” shared Sir Richard Branson, billionaire and founder of Virgin Atlantic, in its press release

Banner photo by Leio McLaren via Unsplash.

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