British Airways and Velocys anticipate starting UK sustainable jet fuel production in 2024
Wed 8 May 2019 – The British Airways project with renewable fuels company Velocys is “well advanced”, say the two partners, and production of waste-to-jet fuel is slated to start in 2024 from a new facility in north-east England. An 80-acre (32ha) brownfield site near Immingham on the Humber estuary, with a direct fuel pipeline to Heathrow, has been secured on a three-year option arrangement pending the final go-ahead for the project. Speaking at a British Airways ‘Future of Aviation Fuels’ event in London, Velocys CEO Henrik Wareborn said he expected a financial close on the project by the end of 2020. The event saw presentations from the three short-listed academic finalists in a competition organised by British Airways as part of its centenary celebrations to stimulate UK research into potential sustainable aviation fuels of the future.
The airline is marking its centenary with a focus on the future for aviation over the next 100 years in fuels, careers and customer experience. In collaboration with Cranfield University, the ‘BA 2119: Future of Fuels’ competition was launched last November and challenged British universities “to develop a new or different pathway to achieve global leadership in the development of sustainable aviation fuels.” The airline posed the question of how to power a long-haul flight for at least five hours and produce zero carbon emissions.
From the 11 universities that entered, the three finalists presented their solutions to an expert panel that judged the entries on a combination of criteria including carbon reduction potential, level of innovation, value to the UK economy and feasibility to implement.
The winner was an entry from a team led by Dr Massimiliano Materazzi from the Chemical Engineering department at University College London (UCL). The team’s solution would convert household waste into jet fuel at plants situated near landfill sites across the country, which could deliver up to 3.5 million tonnes of jet fuel annually by 2050. The UCL team will receive £25,000 ($32,000) and an invitation to present its solution to the International Airlines Group (IAG) board, as well as to next week’s industry Global Sustainable Aviation Forum in Montreal and the IATA Alternative Fuels Symposium in New Orleans in November.
“We were so excited just to make it through to the final – but to receive the top prize is overwhelming,” said Dr Materazzi, who is a Research Fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering, at UCL. “This is evidence that airlines are taking this challenge seriously and are starting to actively engage with academia to find sustainable solutions. We look forward to progressing our concept, which will hopefully see the development of the fuel of the future.”
The two runners-up were entries from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Christie Burley, an academic associate at LSE, presented a ‘power-to-liquids’ combined with carbon capture utilisation pathway that would harvest the CO2 produced by existing industrial plants and convert it into jet fuel using renewable energy produced from wind turbines. She estimated her technology could produce 1.95 million tonnes of jet fuel a year, enough to satisfy BA fuel demand, and consume 9.7 million tonnes of CO2, which is about 8% of global industrial CO2 use. The Low Carbon Jet Fuel project presented by a team from the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions and School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University entails the production of jet fuels through the integration of novel technologies, taking CO2 and wood pellets from waste biomass and a combination of co-electrolysis to produce a jet fuel that is negative in emissions.
IAG Group Head of Sustainability Jonathon Counsell said BA’s ambition was to be using one million tonnes of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – nearly 8% of total fuel needs – by 2035 that would be produced from up to 14 plants, as well as providing significant opportunities for jobs and exports. “We truly believe the UK can become a centre of excellence on this,” he said. “We have a hot-bed of talent in this country.” By 2050, he foresaw up to 30% of the airline’s fuel requirements could be met by SAF, which would save around 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year.
Counsell reported over 30 refineries had closed down in the UK over the past 20 years, so there were many brownfield sites to build SAF-producing plants that would create high-value jobs in industrial areas. There was also a strong UK aviation sector that wanted to buy the product, together with world-class academic institutions and now government support, he said. With 80% of jet fuel being imported into the UK, producing SAF in the UK would reduce this dependency, he added.
IAG, said Counsell, will be investing $400 million in SAF development and fuel offtake contracts over the next 20 years.
The Immingham project team, which also includes Shell, is in the process of developing the engineering and business case, and, according to Velocys, is still subject to funding and a final investment decision, which would include a decision to proceed with the acquisition of the site. Wareborn said the Immingham project was at the pre-FEED stage and once the financial close had been reached by the anticipated end of 2020, construction would start in 2021 that would take three years to complete. Once operational, the plant is expected to employ around 100 staff and convert 300,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste into jet fuel.
Presenting the Future of Fuels awards, British Airways CEO Alex Cruz said: “We are the first airline in Europe to build a plant to convert organic household waste into sustainable aviation fuel with our partner Velocys and now we are the first to bring together academics from British universities to work alongside us to create new solutions to this key environmental issue.
“There is a huge opportunity for the UK to be a global leader in sustainable aviation fuels. We know that there is a future for electrification, a pathway for organic household waste to SAF and this competition addresses what other pathways there could be to decarbonise aviation. This winning proposal from UCL is incredibly exciting and we look forward to exploring it with them.”
UCL team were presented with their BA Future of Fuels award by BA CEO Alex Cruz (right) and Prof Graham Braithwaite (left), Director of Transport Systems at Cranfield University and lead judge of the competition: