Virgin Atlantic and ‘sustainable’ aviation

The often-mentioned Achilles heel of the Maldives’ carbon neutral project is aviation. The country is highly reliant on income from foreign tourists who visit its hundred or so resort islands, and all visitors almost without exception arrive by air after long-haul flights. One study commissioned by the Maldives government in 2009 found that emissions from international flights almost exactly equalled the entire 1.3 million tonnes of greenhouse gases produced by the rest of the country. Asking tourists not to come is politically and economically unfeasible. So what in the medium and long term can be done about this?

How the tourism industry can be made more sustainable was a big topic of discussion at the recent Symposium held by Six Senses on Soneva Fushi resort in October. One of the attendees at the event was Sir Richard Branson, known of course for his aviation business Virgin Atlantic as well as countless other Virgin-brand enterprises. He made quite a surprising statement in an interview you can watch below (I remember because I asked the questions, though remaining off-camera!).

Branson speaks about putting the profits from his businesses into a “clean energy fuel” for his airline… he goes on to state: “I would expect us to be, maybe 60-70% carbon neutral by 2020, and I think if Virgin Atlantic can do it all airlines should be able to do it.” At the Symposium Branson dropped some major hints about a significant upcoming announcement from Virgin, which duly appeared the following week and was heralded as “potentially game-changing” by the Climate Group and others.

I asked Branson by email to give some further details (over and above the Virgin press release) about the specifics of the technology, and he referred me to a New Zealand-based company called LanzaTech. Basically this is the idea: waste gases produced by steel manufacturing and other industries are rich in carbon monoxide, which is usually combined with oxygen and vented into the atmosphere as CO2. LanzaTech has developed  “proprietary microbes” (genetically modified and fully patented) in a bio-reactor which can consume this CO and transform it into ethanol.

For obvious reasons – not least, land-use, water-efficiency and biodiversity – this synthetic ethanol is far better than ethanol produced from feedstocks which use lots of land, because it is recycling a waste product from industry. (Syngas , which is a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, can also be used, from sources such as municipal waste.) It is better still than using ethanol which is produced from foodstuffs, such as the vast quantities that the United States uses in its incredible and immoral subsidy scheme to burn corn in car engines.

This ethanol cannot be fed straight into jet engines. Aircraft burn kerosene, a hydrocarbon which is far more energy-dense than ethanol, and their fuel has to have the right flash point and resistance to low temperatures. This is where the third partner in the venture, Swedish Biofuels, comes in. This company – the owner of another proprietary process, which it fought against BP in court and won to protect – transforms the alcohols into fully-fledged hydrocarbons, chemically indistinguishable from fossil-derived kerosene.

Purists will point out that the process is not entirely carbon neutral because the original carbon released as a waste product from industrial processes was presumably originally fossil-derived. This is true, but one also needs to consider the counterfactual – what would otherwise have happened. In the case of LanzaTech’s fuel, the carbon monoxide would otherwise have been vented straight into the atmosphere as CO2. Now it passes first through a jet turbine engine, in the process displacing CO2 which would have been entirely fossil-derived from crude oil. So to this extent, the new fuel represents a 100% mitigation, and is considered 50% carbon neutral from a full lifecycle analysis perspective.

This is much better than US corn ethanol, which represents very little carbon mitigation, and better still than some biofuels derived from sources like palm oil, which produce far more CO2 than they save because of land-use changes like direct or indirect deforestation.

Virgin’s innovation is only the latest in an increasingly crowded market of jet biofuels. Only this week United Airlines operated a commercial flight from Houston to Chicago on algae-derived biofuel, produced by a company called Solazyme. Information on Solazyme’s technology is sketchy to say the least, but it appears that the company’s “proprietary strain” of genetically engineered algae is does not use sunlight and natural CO2 as its energy source: instead the microalgae are fed on sugars from existing biological material and live in the dark. This merely sounds like a fancy way of producing ethanol via fermentation – what matters is where the sugars come from. If they come from corn, this represents little if any advance due to land constraints.

Land constraints can also be expected to affect the future of jatropha, until recently the ‘next big thing’ in biofuels, and the feedstock for a 50-50 biofuelled jet flight recently operated by Air China. For its part Virgin’s arch-enemy British Airways has partnered with Solena Group, which has a much more interesting technology – this uses plasma gasification to produce syngas from waste, which is then catalytically converted into synthetic liquid biofuels.

The plasma part is fascinating, because it represents a very environmentally-friendly solution to municipal waste: the reactor operates at 5,000C, a temperature which chemically splits all organic materials into hydrogen and carbon monoxide (syngas), leaving only a vitrified ‘slag’ at the end which can be used in construction.

The high temperatures in the process ensure that no pollutants like NOx, tar or fly ash are produced, and the syngas product is then converted into fuels using the same good old Fischer-Tropsch process which was originally utilised by the Nazis to convert coal into diesel for their Panzer tanks. Solena claims to be able to produce 1,800 barrels per day per plant, and BA aims to produce enough for its London City Airport fleet to be entirely low-carbon as soon as 2014.

So, back to the Maldives. The key issue for sustainable aviation is of course scalability – how rapidly any of these alternatives can be scaled up to make a significant dent in the 4.8 million barrels of jet fuel currently consumed per day by the world’s 13,000-strong aircraft fleet. And underlying scale comes economics… an even more difficult question, as the commercial viability of the alternatives surely demands a higher price applied by governments on fossil carbon fuel. Still, given that technological alternatives are becoming feasible for aviation fuel, the idea that only curbs on demand are the only long term ‘solution’ is thankfully becoming obsolete.

6 comments

  1. No matter where the fuel comes from, it all seems to end up as CO2 in the atmosphere. Aren’t we still looking at clever forms of sequestration that don’t steal from potential foodstuffs or farmalnd? Or am I missing something?

  2. Amar Mahmood says:

    Dear Mark
    Since we are on the subject of aviation. I would like to know about your opinion that in some cases planes might be greener than trains. This conclusion comes from the full life cycle of emissions generated by modes of transportation.
    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17260-train-can-be-worse-for-climate-than-plane.html

  3. The climate change impact from aviation has in studies by the IPCC been estimated to be 2-5 times larger than the effect from CO2 alone. This is due to wide range of effects, among them changes in methane levels and cloud formation. There still seems to be quite a lot of uncertainty around these effects, but I haven’t seen any research that dismisses them.

    How do the alternative technologies you write about in your article affect cloud formation etc? If it is just a switch from a fossil fuel to a biofuel, only half (at most) of the climate change impact from aviation is adressed.

  4. Mark

    Well written and well informed, as always, but don’t get pulled too far into defending the current aviation industry because of your role advising the Maldives. The Maldives can retain its premium tourist trade but the aviation industry needs major change not the smokescreen of biofuel targets to defend business-pretty-much-as-usual.
    http://zedbooks.co.uk/paperback/fly-and-be-damned

  5. Bill King says:

    I see no reference to the neutralizing effect of airplane emissions in upper tropo/Lower stratosphere.Though they may be increasing the green-house effect is it also not true they reflect back the uv radiation causing a slow down in global warming by proxy-Cheers Bill

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