On 28 November 2023, history will be made when the first transatlantic flight powered purely by 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) wings its way across the pond from London to New York. The Virgin Atlantic flight is intended to show the feasibility of flying on 100% SAF and is being supported by Boeing, Rolls Royce, and BP among others. It is not clear who is supplying the SAF or the specific process by which it is made, but SAF can be created by any number of different processes depending on the feedstock.
SAF has previously been shown to burn cleaner than existing jet fuels, emitting fewer particulates. Lifecycle calculations also indicate that SAF can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%. Currently, SAF can be blended into jet fuel in ratios of up to 50%, so if it is possible to increase this to 100%, then this will significantly aid in the defossilisation of the airline industry. SAF can be generated from a number of renewable resources, such as organic waste, which can even include sewage, so it can ultimately be fully renewable. SAF is currently the only practical technology which allows existing capital to be used and thereby support the world's economy. Whilst it may ultimately be replaced by hydrogen-powered planes, the lifespan and capital expenditure associated with purchasing new aircraft or retrofitting existing aircraft is very high, and so SAF will be required for the coming decades.
Shai Weiss, the CEO of Virgin Atlantic, has stated that the UK government needs to support the creation of a SAF industry in the UK and I would agree. There are a lot of companies in the UK investigating SAF and the UK Government is supporting the industry to some extent, but it is very important that the UK is able to build upon its leadership in implementing 100% SAF powered flights and grow its own SAF industry. The UK has an enviable chemical industry with a huge amount of expertise, but it will need to hit a critical mass in order to make best use of this expertise and this opportunity. With the US and Europe, particularly the US, storming ahead in recent years due to government support, the UK also needs to be bold in its actions.
One issue that SAF innovators face is gaining technical certification under ASTM D7566 as it is a requirement that SAF must have the same properties as existing jet fuels so that engines do not need to be redesigned. There are currently only six technologies that are ASTM approved, which means that innovators investigating other technologies need to undertake a huge amount of work to get approval. This could potentially limit innovation in this area, but of course safety must remain paramount. The University of Sheffield has a SAF Innovation Centre, which is the first of its kind in the UK and has the potential to aid in the UK's path to net zero through development and testing of SAF. The University of Sheffield's SAF Innovation Centre may be able to assist with bringing new technologies to market and is therefore a key asset in the UK's SAF industry.
Since SAF is a drop-in replacement for traditional jet fuel, I am sure that the flight will proceed without any issues and we will hopefully see a big uptake in the use of SAF in the UK and further afield.
Innovation and sustainability are vital areas of work, but they must go hand in hand with safety. This is a reminder that together we can drive change, reduce emissions, and make the skies greener for generations to come
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