After five years of research and development, Virgin Atlantic and one of its clean-technology partners, Illinois-based LanzaTech, developed a source of jet fuel made of waste gases from steel mills. According to the companies, this new source of jet fuel passed extensive tests that both delivered on performance and promise to result in carbon emissions savings of 65 percent compared to conventional jet fuel.
This discovery comes at a time when airlines, seeking to mitigate what is a carbon-intensive business, have long dabbled with jet fuel blended with algae and other biofuels. The Dutch carrier KLM experimented with algae fuel blends, has flown transatlantic flights using blends of kerosene and cooking oil, and is still apparently committed to sourcing these fuels when available. Alaska Airlines also considered using recycled cooking oil to reduce its carbon emissions. Earlier this year, United kicked off flights between San Francisco and Los Angeles using a biofuel-conventional blend. Aviation fuel using feedstock from Brazilian sugarcane is also touted as an option.
But the problem with the development of more sustainable jet fuel boils down to one word: scale. A blend of 5, 10 or even 50 percent sounds impressive. But airlines are still struggling to get a seat on the carbon-reduction bandwagon – and air travel is still on the rise worldwide. The struggle with expanding capacity for fuels such as algae-based oils is one reason why one giant in the industry, Solazyme, transitioned away from a focus on biofuels, rebranded itself as TerraVia, and now sees foods made from algae as its cash cow, according to Environmental News Network.