photo: Dan Terzian/CC BY
Considering how energy-intensive it is, aviation is really the hard nut to crack in greening transportation, but Virgin Atlantic says it has a way to do it--and, importantly, without using biofuels. As The Independent reports, Richard Branson says Virgin's planes will begin using a new green aviation fuel in the next two to three years, made from waste industrial gas. Branson says,
We were the first commercial airline to test a biofuel flight and we continue to lead the airline industry as the pioneer of sustainable aviation. This partnership to produce a next generation, low-carbon aviation fuel is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint ... With oil running out, it is important that new fuel solutions are sustainable and, with the steel industry alone able to deliver over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, the potential is very exciting. This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced as a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel.
The technology Branson refers to is developed by LanzaTech in New Zealand--with plans to expand to China this year at the demonstration scale and commercial operations by 2014.
Virgin plans on using the new fuel on routes from London to Shanghai and Delhi in the next two to three years.
Here's LanzaTech's video on how this fuel is created:
One Third of Current Fuel Demand
The 15 billion gallons of jet fuel mentioned certainly sounds like a lot, but based on Air Transport Association stats, it's roughly one-third of all fuel used by the global aviation industry, both passenger and cargo flights.
In other words, it's certainly more scalable than trying to use most biofuels for aviation, but if this was the only source of "green" aviation fuel, there's some massive contraction in order of the global aviation industry. No doubt though that it won't be the only source, but it does seem to dampen the rhetoric a bit for me.
Then there's the source. LanzaTech's process uses either waste gas from steel production, or as the video says, from petroleum refining, or syngas created from municipal waste. All of which means this really isn't a renewable energy source, even if low-carbon and some cool technology.
Post Peak Oil, Steel Production Will Drop - What Then?
Reusing waste products is generally a pretty green thing--and I'm going to ignore for now the actual carbon reductions of this fuel as it's a bit of a complex nut to untie quickly--but I wonder how much energy-intensive steel production will be going on as fossil fuels run out.
As an interim cleaner technology, there definitely seems to be some promise here (especially compared to aviation biofuels) but if we place this all into the context of peak oil and peak fossil fuels more broadly, I wonder if the end game here has very many airplanes flying at all.
Which is hardly the end of civilization, but is one where travel is much slower--itself not a bad thing at all.