Adam Morton • 30.11.23 • 3 min read

Virgin Atlantic’s transatlantic 100% SAF flight a major step towards Net Zero aviation

This week, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787 became the first commercial airliner to fly transatlantic powered only by Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). Adam Morton, the ATI’s Head of Technology – Sustainability & Strategy, considers the significance of this milestone and why it emphasises the importance of ultra-efficient technologies.

On Tuesday 28th November, Flight VS100 took off from London Heathrow heading for New York JFK with no fossil fuel on board to power the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines. In its place was SAF made from waste fats and oils, produced via the hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids process or ‘HEFA process’.

While the flight itself took less than 8 hours, this project has been in development for some time. In December 2022, the Virgin Atlantic-led consortium was awarded £1million from the UK Department for Transport following a competitive process. This crucial support helped cover project design, engine bench-testing and procuring a fuel where large cost premiums still exist.

International standards do not currently permit more than a 50% blend of SAF alongside conventional fuel on commercial flights, meaning permits from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and US counterpart the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) needed to be secured.

As this product and other SAF fuels are naturally low in certain key components, the SAF supplier BP Aviation and US company Virent produced the fuel with the synthesised aromatics necessary for a true ‘drop-in’ fuel. This, coupled with ground testing of the engines earlier in the year, gave the consortium confidence of safe operations and improved sustainability without modifications to the aircraft or its propulsion system. Special provisions were also necessary around draining and purging for follow-on Jet A flights.

Meanwhile, recognising that the lifecycle benefits of SAF are not yet 100%, residual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the flight were mitigated using innovative carbon removal projects. Other consortium members essential for delivery of this Anglo-US project included Imperial College, the University of Sheffield and the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the ATI congratulates the team on achieving this milestone.

Alongside proof of concept, a key objective of this flight was to start the process of generating data necessary for full acceptance of sustainable fuel proportions to 100%. With fossil-free aviation fuels currently representing less than 1% the total used globally, it is also likely publicity will stimulate investment, increase sustainable fuel production and reduce unit cost.

Careful project design will also deliver additional learning benefits with Imperial College’s work on identifying flight efficient routes, driving forward this interesting area for decarbonising aviation. Meanwhile, their analysis of flight emissions data and full end-to-end lifecycle analysis is aligned with minimising both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions in the future.

The scale of the challenge in ramping up SAF production underlines the criticality of ultra-efficient technologies. In a world of limited availability of SAF, ultra-efficient technology will play an essential role in managing demand and associated costs. With aircraft, engines and fuel handling systems increasingly compatible with 100% SAF, driving ever higher efficiency across those systems will help to dramatically reduce fuel requirements. This in turn, will minimise the economic impact on carriers of fuel transition, and also provide our fuel industry partners with a less challenging delivery target for achieving Net Zero across the aviation sector.

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Cover image © Copyright: Virgin Atlantic