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Are Waste Fats and Plant Sugars the Future of Aviation Fuel?

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

On November 28, 2023, a Virgin Atlantic test flight, powered exclusively by sustainable aviation fuel, completed a historic journey from London’s Heathrow Airport to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. The flight of the Boeing 787 has been hailed as a breakthrough in the global push to decarbonize aviation.

Made from raw materials such as waste fats, plant sugars, corn, and algae, sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) produce 70% less carbon than traditional petroleum-based jet fuel. While airlines have previously blended SAFs with standard fuels, this flight marked the first instance of an aircraft relying solely on SAF. Praising the achievement, which was partly financed by the UK government, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the flight was “a major milestone towards making air travel more environmentally friendly and decarbonizing our skies.”

A Virgin Atlantic test flight from London to New York was powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel, which produces 70% less carbon than traditional jet fuel.
A Virgin Atlantic test flight from London to New York was powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel, which produces 70% less carbon than traditional jet fuel.

However, despite SAF's pivotal role in the future of aviation fuel, the industry faces substantial challenges on the path to offering regular commercial flights that are fully powered by SAF. Currently, SAF accounts for only 0.1% of global jet fuel usage.

One of the primary obstacles is that SAF is far more expensive than traditional jet fuel, which deters airlines from buying SAF and manufacturing facilities from mass-producing these fuels.

Traditional jet fuels contain aromatic compounds that keep engines functioning correctly, but many SAFs do not contain these compounds. Therefore, further research and technological advancements will need to take place before planes can operate on these sustainable fuels.

Nevertheless, there is hope for the future as five commercial plants producing SAF will soon be under construction in the UK. The European Union has also passed laws requiring airlines to use 70% SAF by 2050, which aligns with the broader global effort to usher in a new era of sustainable aviation.

Flight facts:

  • The Scottish airline Loganair operates the world's shortest commercial flight, which connects Westray and Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands. The flight covers a distance of around 1.7 miles (2.7 km) and takes only 90 seconds.

  • American pilot Jessica Cox is the world's first licensed armless pilot. She uses her feet to control the aircraft and has been an inspiring figure in breaking barriers for people with disabilities.

  • Only 5% of the world's population has ever flown in an airplane.

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • A Virgin Atlantic test flight from London to New York was powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel, which produces 70% less carbon than traditional jet fuel.
      By: Steve Knight
      A Virgin Atlantic test flight from London to New York was powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel, which produces 70% less carbon than traditional jet fuel.