Virgin Atlantic announces first transatlantic flight powered solely by “green” fuels

This fuel will be composed of 88% HEFA, from fat waste, and 12% SAK, from plant sugars and proteins and oil. But environmental associations denounce a “greening of the facade” of the aeronautical industry.


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A Virgin Atlantic aircraft at Shanghai-Pudong International Airport (China), August 21, 2023. (YING TANG / NURPHOTO)

It’s a first. The British airline Virgin Atlantic will operate a transatlantic flight powered entirely by so-called “sustainable” fuels on Tuesday, November 28. This will depart from London’s Heathrow airport at 11:30 a.m. (10:30 a.m. in France) and land at JFK airport in New York. This journey, Virgin boasts, will be the first “operating 100% on so-called sustainable fuels on both engines, by a commercial airline, on a long-haul route”. The flight will take place on a Boeing 787 equipped with Rolls-Royce engines running only on this fuel. There will be no passengers or cargo loading.

Produced from used oils, wood residues or algae, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) can today be used in addition to kerosene (up to 50%) in current aircraft. They are considered the main lever for decarbonization of the sector for the decades to come, but their production remains in its infancy and very expensive. Furthermore, they are used in combustion engines which continue to generate CO2. Decarbonization occurs upstream, in the act of reusing plant materials instead of extracting hydrocarbons.

Last December, the British government announced its support for this initiative. “up to 1 million pounds”. The airline’s project is being developed in collaboration with the University of Sheffield, the American aircraft manufacturer Boeing, the British engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and the hydrocarbon giant BP.

Experts express reservations about technology

Environmental organizations, however, describe this operation as “greenwashing”. “It is no coincidence that this flight takes place two days before the start of COP28 in Dubai”estimates the Stay Grounded association. “While the world’s attention is focused on one flight, there are 100,000 every day using fossil fuels. Substitutes are just a drop in the ocean of hydrocarbons.”.

Finlay Asher, an aerospace engineer who worked for Rolls Royce, quoted by Stay Grounded, explains that CDA technology, called SAF, is a “technological impasse” because it cannot be developed on a sufficient scale to make a difference. “Additionally, CO2 from direct air capture and green hydrogen produced by electrolysis – both used to make e-kerosene – are very expensive to produce. (…) The only way “The only way to address aviation emissions in the short term is to address the demand side.”

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