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Virgin Atlantic Takes Flight with First Waste-to-Fuel Mix

Richard Branson, and CEO Jennifer Holmgren of Lanzatech welcoming the first waste-to-fuel powered flight to London.

Early this year we introduced you to Lanzatech’s innovative pilot program with Sekisui Chemical Company that uses naturally occurring bacteria to transform waste gases into chemical precursors for other products. Lanzatech hasn’t been idle in the meantime — this week the company and its partner Pacific Northwest National Labs (PNNL) announced that for the first time a commercial flight has been powered by a cleaner jet fuel derived from a carbon-rich industrial pollution stream.

Virgin Atlantic flight VS16, from Orlando to Gatwick using a Boeing 747, ushered in a new era for low-carbon aviation that has been years in the making. Through a combination of chemistry, biotechnology, engineering and catalysis, the two organizations (plus Virgin Atlantic and Boeing) have shown the world that carbon can be recycled and used for commercial flight.

Passengers on the historic flight were welcomed by a familiar face on arrival as the airline’s founder Sir Richard Branson marshalled the aircraft into the gate (see video). This flight follows hot on the heels of a £410K UK government Future Fuels for Flight and Freight grant to determine the feasibility of building a 40-50M US gallon jet fuel plant in Britain.

LanzaTech, a Chicago based company, produces next-generation ‘advanced’ fuels by recycling waste industrial gases like those produced from steel making and other heavy industrial processes. LanzaTech takes these waste, carbon-rich gases to first make ethanol. The ethanol can be used for a range of low-carbon products, including jet fuel.

Today Virgin Atlantic is calling on the UK government to commit to making this fuel a commercial reality in the UK.  Allowing access for new carbon capture and utilisation technologies like LanzaTech’s to incentives already given to earlier generations of ‘biofuels’ and providing critical investor support will enable first plants to be swiftly built.

 

Without these key next steps this opportunity will no doubt be picked up elsewhere. But with them, LanzaTech says it could have three UK plants running by 2025, producing up to 125 million gallons of sustainable fuel per year – enough to fly all Virgin Atlantic’s UK outbound flights (as a 50:50 mix) while bringing multiple benefits to the UK. These include: saving nearly 1 million tonnes of life-cycle carbon in a hard-to-decarbonise sector; and supporting a burgeoning bio-economy sector, thousands of clean growth jobs across the supply chain, enhanced fuel security, and providing important trade import and export potential – all benefits the UK desperately needs as we face a post-Brexit Britain.

Further, the LanzaTech approach has huge scale-up potential. If the technology were rolled out worldwide to the world’s eligible steel mills (65% of all), this alone could produce enough fuel to meet around 20% of the current commercial global aviation fuel demand. In addition the technology can be used to efficiently convert other plentiful wastes such as, gases from oil refineries and residues from agricultural processes. The fuel has a fantastic sustainability profile with at least 70% life cycle carbon savings as well as no land, food or water competition issues and gold-standard sustainability certification. Crucially, because it’s made from plentiful, affordable waste-streams, the fuel has a fighting chance at coming in at a price on a par with current fossil fuel prices – a truly groundbreaking move that would enable airlines like Virgin Atlantic to achieve the big carbon savings needed.

The Technology

LanzaTech’s unique carbon recycling technology operates similarly to traditional fermentation but instead of using sugars and yeast to make alcohol, waste carbon-rich gases, such as those found at industrial manufacturing sites, are converted by bacteria to fuels and chemicals, such as ethanol. The ethanol can be used for a range of low carbon products, including alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK) which is now eligible to be used in commercial flights at up to 50 percent blends with conventional jet fuel.

LanzaTech turned to the catalytic expertise of PNNL, a U.S. Department of Energy National Laboratory, which developed a unique catalytic process and proprietary catalyst to upgrade the ethanol to (ATJ-SPK). The catalyst removes oxygen from the ethanol in the form of water, and then combines the remaining hydrocarbon molecules to form chains large enough for jet fuel without forming aromatics that lead to soot when burned.

LanzaTech then scaled up the technology. The ethanol was converted to 4000 gallons of ATJ-SPK at LanzaTech’s Freedom Pines facility in Georgia and met all the specifications required for use in commercial aviation. In April 2018, an international standards body approved the ethanol-to-jet fuel pathway for aviation turbine fuel at up to a 50 percent blend ratio with standard, petroleum-based jet fuel based on LanzaTech’s Research Report.

DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office has been instrumental in supporting the technology development. With co-funding from BETO, LanzaTech is now preparing a design and engineering package for an ATJ production facility implementing the LanzaTech-PNNL ethanol based ATJ-SPK pathway. LanzaTech’s Freedom Pines site is the location of a planned facility which would be able to convert sustainable ethanol to millions of gallons per year of low carbon jet and diesel fuels.

“This fuel exceeds the properties of petroleum-based jet fuel in terms of efficiency and burns much cleaner,” said John Holladay, PNNL’s deputy manager for energy efficiency and renewable energy. “And by recycling carbon already in the environment – in this case waste gas streams – it lets the world keep more petroleum sequestered the ground. The technology not only provides a viable source of sustainable jet fuel but also reduces the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere.”

“Thanks to collaborative efforts of our friends, partners and governments across both sides of the Atlantic, we are showing the world that carbon capture and utilization is ready today,” said Jennifer Holmgren, LanzaTech chief executive officer. “Many people thought recycling waste carbon emissions into jet fuel wasn’t possible. We have shown that waste carbon is an opportunity, not a liability, and that carbon can be reused to provide sustainable benefits for all. Together we can create the carbon future we need.”

About Tom Breunig (124 Articles)
Tom Breunig is principal at Cleantech Concepts, a market research firm tracking R&D projects in the cleantech sector. He is a technology industry veteran and former international marketing and communications executive who has worked with organizations in semiconductor design, water monitoring, energy efficiency and environmental sensing. He has spoken at numerous technology and energy conferences.
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