Inaugural trans-Atlantic flight highlights SAF importance

Virgin Atlantic’s first 100% SAF-powered flight from London to New York leads the way towards greener aviation fuels for long-haul journeys

“If you make it, we will fly it”

Those are the words of Virgin Atlantic off the back of the world’s first 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) flight from London Heathrow to New York JFK.

The flight, billed Flight100, proves SAF is a safe drop-in replacement for fossil derived jet fuel and the only mid-term viable solution for decarbonising long haul aviation and is the first time a commercial flight powered 100% by SAF has journeyed across the Atlantic. The record-breaker was recorded on a Boeing 787 using Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.

A world-first pioneering SAF-powered flight

This feat was made possible and is the result of a culmination of a year of radical collaboration, Virgin says, in demonstrating the capability of SAF and showcasing how it is compatible with today’s engines, airframes and fuel infrastructure.

Founder of Virgin Atlantic Sir Richard Branson, who was on board the revolutionary flight, said: “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.

“Pioneering spirit continues to be Virgin Atlantic’s beating heart as it pushes the boundaries from carbon fibre aircraft and fleet upgrades to sustainable fuels.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the teams at Virgin Atlantic and our partners, which have been working together to set the flight path for the decarbonisation of long-haul aviation.”

What is SAF?

“There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment,” Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic’s CEO said. “This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by Government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

A biofuel used to power aircraft, SAF has similar properties to conventional jet fuel. The twist? It has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than its industry-standard counterpart. It is made from hydrocarbon molecules through a process called hydrodeoxygenation, which takes place by removing oxygen originating from renewable raw materials with the help of hydrogen. In turn, other impurities — like sulphur and nitrogen — are also removed during this process.

Toxic gases like sulfur dioxide (SO₂) — commonly known as the reaction responsible for the odour of burnt matches — are released naturally by volcanic activity and are produced as a by-product of copper extraction and the burning of sulfur-bearing fossil fuels and other materials containing sulfur. 

SAF can be produced from non petroleum-based renewable feedstocks including the likes of  food and yard waste portion of municipal solid waste, woody biomass, fats/greases/oils and other feedstocks.

Sheila Remes, VP Environmental Sustainability at Boeing added: “In 2008 Virgin Atlantic and Boeing completed the first commercial SAF test flight on a 747 and now we accomplish yet another significant milestone utilising a 787 Dreamliner. 

“This flight is a key step toward our commitment to deliver 100% SAF-compatible aeroplanes by 2030. As we work toward the civil aviation industry’s net-zero goal, this historic journey highlights what we can achieve together.”

Boeing and the future of SAF

Multinational aerospace company Boeing is working with Zero Petroleum to test and analyse the next generation of technologies to accelerate the supply of SAF, another investment in developing SAF globally to reduce aviation’s lifecycle emissions and support the industry’s goal of net zero by 2050.

Zero’s technology produces SAF from air and water from water electrolysis. Celebrated as a ‘power to liquid’ process, this undertaking has the potential to significantly reduce emissions across the lifecycle, provided there is an abundance of renewable electricity, Zero says.

“The aviation industry needs to move quickly to meet upcoming mandates for de-fossilisation and synthetic fuels provide the only fully scalable solution,” Paddy Lowe, CEO of Zero, stated. “We have already developed and tested our 100% drop-in synthetic jet fuel and collaborating with Boeing will now enable us to accelerate the qualification process and put us on course for commercial delivery by 2026.

“Our collaboration with Boeing sets an industry precedent for the recognition and support for synthetic fuels in the global pivot to sustainable solutions.”

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