Sustainable fuel solutions for aviation

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Sustainable fuel solutions for aviation

Crawley, United Kingdom
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Achieving sustainable affordable fuels for aviation would be a major breakthrough in the war on climate change, with transferrable benefits to the wider transportation industry, and major global benefits. The challenge, like the opportunity, is significant – but it is possible!

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Aviation represents 2% of worldwide carbon emissions and growing. But it's also critical to the global economy, supporting 3.5% of global GDP and contributing nearly 56.6 million jobs worldwide, as well as connecting families, communities and businesses around the world. To lose it would have major socio-economic implications. We’re committed to reducing the carbon emissions from aircraft operations, while maintaining these vital benefits. This includes implementing top notch fuel efficiency measures and also, critically, pioneering efforts to steer us away from dependency on fossil fuels and towards low-carbon fuel solutions. This has the potential to make a significant contribution to the international transport industry, climate change and people worldwide.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

It’s early days in the development of sustainable aviation fuel solutions and the challenges are significant. There are many new, early stage suppliers out there, all claiming to have the next big thing – very confusing. There’s also a significant gap in terms of funding the most promising options: from lab, to pilot, to demo, to full commercial plants. We believe we’ve taken a very exciting step in the form of our ground-breaking partnership with new, low-carbon fuels company LanzaTech. LanzaTech makes ethanol from carbon monoxide (CO) gases (usually flared directly into the atmosphere as CO2), from heavy production facilities like steel making sites, then converts this ethanol into jet fuel. We plan to start buying commercial volumes of sustainable fuel as soon as 2014. Plus we’re collaborating with the Carbon War Room (CWR – see video) to encourage development and financing of suppliers beyond LanzaTech – to kickstart a new market of sustainable, affordable fuels worldwide.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

Aviation makes a massive global, socio-economic contribution (Oxford Economics 2011). Growth is generally fastest in developing countries, precisely because it’s so intimately linked to economic development. At the same time, it's clear aviation is carbon-intensive and in need of low carbon solutions. It’s a huge challenge, and huge opportunity to make a big difference. Any breakthroughs could not only change aviation, but also the wider transport industry, with its big carbon footprint (2% global carbon contribution for aviation, and growing; 4% for shipping; 12% for other transport: WRI, 2005). Our biggest opportunity to make a significant difference is by supporting next-generation, low carbon fuels, while avoiding the problems of earlier generation ‘biofuels’, by using novel feedstocks like waste gases, liquids and solids. (How amazing to make a fuel from ‘recycled’ carbon that would otherwise end up in our atmosphere, rather than taking new carbon out of the ground?) We insist on suppliers using the RSB gold-standard, international, independent, multi-stakeholder standard for sustainable fuels, which includes robust LCA methodology. We encourage the technological know-how. But much supplier work is early-stage, and there’s a big funding gap that airlines alone cannot address. We at Virgin are accelerating the fuels’ route to commercialisation by convening key leading stakeholders (inc. suppliers, NGOs, scientists, policy-makers, industry, and – crucially – financers) to create a market and solutions. Much of the detail is confidential, but this is the essence of it.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

We collaborate and compete with other airlines. In 2008 we were the first airline to conduct a biofuel test flight when everyone else said it was technically impossible. Also in 2008, we were one of a small number of airlines to found the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG), to promote solutions: membership now covers 25+% of world aviation fuel demand. We are the first airline to work with the CWR, which assesses new suppliers against key sustainability and commercialisation criteria to encourage transparency and financing: their work is now open to others. We were the first airline to pioneer the ground-breaking new LanzaTech technology. Our (confidential) plans for beyond LanzaTech, to create a new fuels market, will ultimately benefit the whole industry and beyond.

Founding Story

There have been a few! For a long time I’ve believed it’s crucial we wean our world off fossil fuels and on to renewables. So when the post came up at Virgin, in a carbon-intensive industry, with an organisation whose Chairman is known for pioneering – it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. When I joined the company, I realised that finding commercial aviation fuel solutions is no easy task. But in 2010, we came across two great organisations: LanzaTech and the CWR. Because we discovered that LanzaTech is about using a plentiful, cheap, low-carbon feedstock to create an affordable fuel, and has a scaleable growth model, i.e. fuel that is low carbon, that an airline can afford, and which can be rolled out (if applied to all eligible steel plants worldwide, it would provide 19% of the world’s aviation fuel demand). When we heard about it, we knew we were onto something significant! We also need more suppliers, so the audacious ambitions of CWR immediately struck a chord too.
About You
About You
First Name


Tell us about yourself/your team.

What could be a bigger challenge than trying to get sustainable solutions for aviation? And where better to go for it than at a pioneering brand like Virgin, with a values-driven Chairman like Sir Richard Branson? This was what drew me to the role of Head of Sustainability at Virgin Atlantic, 2.5 years ago. It's my passion to drive us to achieve truly sustainable fuels for aviation. Having such an ambition was never going to be a solitary activity – this is very much a team effort, involving fantastic people from across our business, as well as from the wider Virgin Group and airline industry. In fact, to single out individuals in a recognition roll-call would (with only 100 words!) inevitably mean missing out people who’ve contributed something valuable. .

What makes you an intrapreneur? What are the skills, capabilities, and personality traits that make you an intrapreneur?

Oh gosh, I hate putting myself forwards, so I’m already uncomfortable with this question (– is that one of the traits?). But I’m passionate about doing what I can to make this work, so I see the Intrapreneurs’ programme as invaluable to that. I’ve been working in international, multi-stakeholder teams for years. I was lucky enough to be introduced to this way of working about 20 years ago, and collaborating within and across organisations has always made sense to me. No one can be an expert in all things – you make the big stuff happen when you get the right people round the table, identifying barriers to develop real world solutions. This involves (I hope) having reasonably good people skills, and knowing how to leverage our brand and people to broker the right relationships.

About Your Organization
Company Country

, WSX, Crawley

Primary country where this project is creating social impact
Additional countries or regions

As climate change has no borders, and as we as a business operate in many countries, this programme is truly international.



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Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Growth (your pilot is up and running, and starting to expand)

The Solution: Why is this solution innovative for your company and industry?

LanzaTech fuel offers a major sustainable technology breakthrough, already positively received by NGOs, scientists and industry. It avoids the problems of using crops for fuels (land, food and water competition issues) by ‘recycling’ waste carbon for a second use, resulting in 50-60% lower LCA carbon emissions than kerosene. If successful, it’ll be the first time a sustainable fuel has been used in routine aviation use. Just the first step in a bigger, pioneering programme!

What has been the impact of your solution to date?

This programme is still in development, and there are many challenges to overcome, but unlike most other suppliers, as well as their fantastic new technology, LanzaTech already has two ethanol demonstration plants built and running in China. When scaled up to commercial size in 2014 (the equipment ‘bolts on’ to existing plants), one facility alone will have enough capacity to provide jet fuel for all our flights out of China (and more besides), so this offers an extremely promising commercial solution. We’re collaborating to bring the LanzaTech technology to other locations, including Europe, India and beyond – it has so much potential to be scaled. And as described, we’re looking beyond LanzaTech. We need a range of supplier solutions, and we’re collaborating with CWR and other key stakeholders to accelerate crucial funding to the wider market, which could really change the state of the industry. But there are many barriers and we need all the help we can get!

What is your projected impact over the next 1 to 3 years?

By 2014, we plan to have the LanzaTech fuel in routine commercial use, which would be a major industry breakthrough as: 1. The technology itself is ground-breaking and has the potential to lead to even more exciting breakthroughs; 2. It doesn’t rely on agricultural feedstocks and has a fantastic, low LCA carbon, sustainability profile; 3. It would be the first time the industry has moved beyond test flights (with expensive, small-scale fuel volumes), to a solution that is affordable and appropriate for routine business use. By 2015 we plan to do the same in India and Europe. And by working with CWR and other organisations, we intend to have new approach to supporting leading, low carbon aviation fuel suppliers within the next 1-2 years, creating green growth and new low carbon jobs.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?

This is where we need you – there are so many! Much of the detail is confidential right now, but suffice to say this is all superbly possible, but also incredibly challenging. We could fall at m/any hurdles. I would divide these into: technological (that new suppliers can’t scale their technologies through to commercial viability); financial (that we can’t get financers and policy makers to see the merits of switching their support from fossil fuels into sustainable fuels); cultural (that with any new ideas and developments, key stakeholders need to be encouraged to shift their thinking and actions); and regulatory (we need the right policies and incentives). We plan to overcome them by tapping into the best of the Virgin spirit and involving all the pioneering allies we need.

What is the benefit or value you're creating for your business?

Sustainable fuels are an essential part of our Change is in the Air (CIITA) sustainability programme and align closely with our company values, which are also of significant appeal to our customers. In addition, they make good business sense in that they offer the opportunity to: provide affordable low-carbon fuels; take some of the volatility out of escalating and significant fuel costs; provide fuel security; and lower our exposure to carbon taxes and other penalties, therefore improving Virgin Atlantic’s competitive position.

How are you leveraging internal resources (funds, time, knowledge, etc.) to support this initiative?

I spend about 50% of my time on our sustainable fuels programme, as it’s by far our biggest priority. I also work very closely with our Sustainability Strategy Group, which provides high-level governance to our wider Change is in the Air Sustainability Programme, and is led by our Chief Commercial Officer (second in command in the business) and includes most of our Directors and other key senior managers. This gives us much of the support we need to make the fuels’ programme work. For that, I collaborate with all our key departments, e.g. we have invaluable input from our Heads of Fuel Management and Procurement, and from our Engineering Director – all of whom are essential to this programme. Many people across the business are very excited by, and supportive of, the possibilities.

Expand on your answer, explaining the long-term funding and support plan.

The aviation sector is very lean financially, and fuel represents a high proportion of operating costs. This means airlines alone cannot fund the development of a new fuels market. Also, any new fuels need to be affordable. We can leverage our role as a leading brand and buyer of sustainable fuels, to demonstrate that a market exists and stimulate investment (as we’ve done with LanzaTech). To go bigger, we’re working with CWR to identify other suppliers (those that are truly sustainable and scaleable), and with other airlines to demonstrate wider demand (e.g. SAFUG members). Getting a new market started also needs investors, policy makers and scientists among others. Crucially, we need to encourage financers to inject money into the right places, so that we can make this happen.

Tell us about your partnerships across your company and externally that are key to your project's success.

From our Chairman Sir Richard Branson who describes LanzaTech as “one of the most exciting developments of our lifetime and a major breakthrough in the war on carbon”, to the CWR (see accompanying videos), to our Executive team and senior managers, Virgin Group, airline members of SAFUG, scientists (we collaborate with Imperial College London), NGOs (the Carbon War Room, RSB), policy makers in the UK, EU and beyond, and essentially, the finance community.

What internal support have you gotten for your project? What kind of push-back have you received?

Internal support for the programme is described above. The biggest challenges we have are that fuels need to be affordable (at least on a par with kerosene costs) and that airlines are not in a position to fund a new supplier market themselves. Instead, we must go where the money is, using our brand and access to expertise and leverage support. In short, any initiatives must make business sense – they must be developed in the real and challenging world of aviation.