British Airways Partners with Sustainable Jet Fuel Company

The airline expects the fuel to be available to power a number of its flights by the end of 2022.

Grounded planes at airport.

Matthew Horwood / Contributor / Getty Images

Earlier this week, British Airways announced that it is investing in LanzaJet, a technology and innovation company that’s aiming to create "sustainable aviation fuel" (SAF) at scale. Specifically, the initiative is geared toward building the first commercial-scale production facility in Georgia. The announcement comes in addition to the airline’s existing partnership with a separate SAF company called Velocys, which could see production at a UK-based facility starting in 2025.

The press release announcing the initiative explains that the LanzaJet process involves converting "sustainable ethanol (a chemical compound widely blended with petrol to reduce its carbon intensity) into sustainable aviation fuel using a patented chemical process." So, while British Airways is claiming a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to regular jet fuel, realizing those benefits will depend on what the companies use to make the ethanol in the first place.

The announcement does not explicitly state the feedstock they are planning to use, but it does say that it can include, but is not limited to, non-edible agricultural residues such as wheat straw, as well as “recycled pollution.” That second potential feedstock is what will get folks' attention, as it appears to refer to the idea of capturing and using carbon pollution from other industrial sources.

LanzaTech, the company that launched LanzaJet, offers this explanation as to how that process might work:

"LanzaTech sees a future where a steel mill, for example, would make lightweight steel for parts of a plane, and then use production emissions to make fuel for that plane as well as chemicals to produce the synthetic fibers, plastics and rubbers needed for the body and cabin of the aircraft. This is the circular economy in action: waste mitigation, resource efficiency and value add through carbon reductions.”

Getting this type of carbon recycling off the ground, however, is not the only challenge for those advocating for SAF. The other is getting anywhere near the scale needed to meet global aviation demand, not to mention finding planes that can actually fly on this stuff. That said, Boeing announced last month a commitment that its commercial airplanes would be capable and certified to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuels by 2030.

Whatever the future for SAF, given the timescale with which we’re going to have to decarbonize, demand reduction is going to need to remain a priority for some time to come. That means tackling frequent flying and business travel in particular, and it means doubling down on providing alternatives.

Luckily, for some routes at least, alternatives do appear to be emerging. Just last week, Swedish ferry company Stena Line announced that it was ordering two all-electric car ferries, both of which will be world firsts in terms of size and capacity. Operating between Gothenburg in Sweden, and Frederikshavn in Denmark, the ferries will be capable of carrying 1000 passengers, as well as “3000 lane metres of freight capacity,” along the 50-nautical-mile route. Given that rail operators are already adding new sleeper routes in several parts of Europe and many people are learning to avoid unnecessary air travel, there are glimpses of ways in which our transport system might adjust so that flying is not always the default option.

Whether or not the future eventually includes electric- or SAF-fueled flights along routes that aren't easily replaced by overland travel remains to be seen. And efforts to focus first on reducing demand will be important as we wait to see if and when those alternatives really can scale. That’s easier said than done in a world where air travel has become cheaper and more accessible to larger segments of the global population.