Virgin Atlantic partners with LanzaTech on 'breakthrough technology' to convert waste gases to jet biofuels
LanzaTech CEO Dr Jennifer Holmgren, Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgway (photo: Virgin Atlantic)
Tue 11 Oct 2011 – Nearly four years after it carried out the industry’s first jet biofuel flight, Virgin Atlantic is firmly back in the biofuel big time with the announcement of a partnership with New Zealand-based clean energy company LanzaTech. Describing LanzaTech’s industrial waste gases to fuel technology as the most exciting of the biofuel breakthroughs so far, the airline’s President, Sir Richard Branson, said a demonstration flight is planned in 12-18 months time and he hoped to begin using the new jet fuel on operations from India and China to London within three years. The technology essentially involves taking waste gases such as carbon monoxide from steel, aluminium and other industrial plants and converting them to ethanol. This is then converted into jet fuel using technology developed by partner Swedish BioFuels. Virgin’s exact role in the venture has still to be determined but the airline will help facilitate the certification, sustainability criteria and commercial development of the product.
Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgway said that before the airline’s pioneering biofuel flight in February 2008 there had been huge scepticism that flying modern aircraft on biofuels was possible but now they had been taken up by the industry. Branson noted that the Virgin flight had been derided by former rival British Airways boss Willie Walsh as a publicity stunt but instead had led to aviation biofuels becoming a reality.
“Since then, we haven’t been idle and have been working through a number of groups,” reported Ridgway. “We have been looking at how these fuels can be produced in the kinds of quantities necessary and how they can be produced responsibly by not displacing food crops, land and water resources.”
Virgin Atlantic says the partnership with LanzaTech and the use of jet biofuels in regular commercial operations will take the airline beyond its pledge of a 30% carbon reduction per passenger-km by 2020.
“The investment in renewable fuels is part of our wider programme to reduce carbon through measures such as using new, more fuel-efficient aircraft and supporting a global cap and trade scheme through our involvement in the Aviation Global Deal group,” it added.
The LanzaTech gas fermentation technology avoids the land use conflict by capturing industrial waste gases that contain elevated concentrations of carbon monoxide which are pumped out of flue stacks as harmful CO2. The captured gases are fed into a bioreactor, dispersed into a liquid medium, consumed by LanzaTech’s proprietary microbes and converted into chemical or drop-in fuel products. This carbon capture improves the industrial facility’s overall energy efficiency and profitability while reducing its carbon footprint, says the company.
LanzaTech estimates the process can be retrofitted to 65% of the world’s steel mills, allowing the fuel to be sourced on a worldwide basis. In addition, it can be used in other metals processing and chemical industries, as well as coal-fired power stations. Branson claims that even if just applied to steel mills, around 15 billion gallons of jet fuel could be produced annually, representing around 20% of current global jet fuel consumption.
The technology has been piloted in New Zealand since 2008 and a larger demonstration facility in Shanghai producing 100,000 US gallons of ethanol annually is expected to be commissioned before the end of the year in conjunction with Chinese steelmaker Baosteel. A larger commercial operation is due in place for 2013 capable of producing 30 million gallons per year. Last month, LanzaTech signed a joint venture with Shougang, one of China’s largest steel producers, to construct a demonstration plant at one of its steel mills. China produces around 50% of the world’s steel.
Although they wouldn’t be drawn on details, Virgin and LanzaTech are talking to UK steelmakers with a view to setting up a similar plant at some later stage.
Key to the LanzaTech process is Swedish BioFuels, which is one of the few companies in the world that can convert ethanol into drop-in jet fuels. It uses chemical synthesis to build the required hydrocarbon molecules, including the aromatics required for the safe operation of jet engines. Swedish BioFuels has already supplied jet fuel to the US Air Force for testing purposes as part of a DARPA project. The company’s Managing Director, Prof Angelica Hull, says that as well as ethanol, a range of lignocellulosic feedstocks can be converted into its synthetic jet fuel.
Jet biofuels produced from the LanzaTech/Swedish BioFuels technologies were not included in the latest round of alternative jet fuels – known as Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) fuels – approved by certification body ASTM International this summer. According to LanzaTech CEO Dr Jennifer Holmgren this could take up to two years before approval is granted for use of the company’s fuels in commercial airline operations, probably as a 50% blend with conventional jet kerosene, as with HEFA fuels. Alcohol-to-jet fuels are already under consideration by the ASTM group responsible and Boeing has undertaken to support LanzaTech and the partners in the certification process.
“While there is still work to be done and logistical hurdles to cross, we have excellent partners in Virgin Atlantic, Swedish BioFuels and Boeing and we are confident that we will have a facility with the capacity to produce fuel for commercial use by 2014,” said Holmgren.
She said extensive life-cycle analysis of its jet fuel product had revealed greenhouse gas emission reductions of around 50% compared with conventional fossil-based fuels. The partners will be advised by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB), which has developed a global sustainability standard for the voluntary certification of best practices in biofuel production, on ensuring the fuel produced meets key environmental, social and economic criteria. The RSB was recently selected by the European Commission as one of its seven approved biofuels certification bodies.
“We are happy to be selected as the credible bar for this new fuel to meet,” commented Peter Ryus, Manager of Certification and Implementation at RSB. “The team has demonstrated their commitment to ensuring sustainability criteria are met as the technology is developed, and we are happy to guide this process.”
Also taking part in the Virgin/LanzaTech project will be Imperial College London, which will contribute detailed sustainability and policy work.
Branson said LanzaTech’s fuel cost was on a par with, or a little higher than, standard jet kerosene but hoped it would come down in time whereas, he expected, kerosene would continue to increase in price over the longer term.
According to Virgin Atlantic’s Head of Sustainability, Emma Harvey, LanzaTech’s jet fuel is one of a number of sustainable biofuel pathways the airline is exploring.
Branson’s private equity firm, Virgin Green Fund, is a major investor in Colorado-based advanced biofuels company Gevo, which was awarded a contract by the US Defense Logistics Agency last month to supply jet fuel to the US Air Force. Worth up to $600,000, the contract provides for Gevo to supply up to 11,000 gallons of alcohol-to-jet fuel that will be used for engine testing and a feasibility flight demonstration of an A-10 aircraft.
Branson said governments should acknowledge the work being done by airlines to turn to clean fuels and help develop the process. He suggested the UK government should incentivise those airlines that used sustainable biofuels and “stop ever-increasing taxes”.