Someone just filled up their commercial airliner with low-carbon recycled industrial waste gas and flew it across the Atlantic.

That someone is Sir Richard Branson – or rather, Virgin Atlantic – the airline he is still Chairman of. The day was 4 October 2018, the plane a Boeing 747 on a full commercial flight, and the fuel was carbon-rich steel mill waste gas that had been recycled into a low-carbon sustainable jet fuel alternative.

Branson was on hand to welcome passengers from Orlando, Florida at London’s Gatwick airport, following an uneventful flight that was unusual only for its enormous environmental upside.

The upside

The flight effectively ushered in a new era of low-carbon aviation, said Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), which co-developed the fuel with industrial partner LanzaTech.

Through a combination of chemistry, biotechnology, engineering and catalysis, it proved that carbon can be recycled and used as a viable source of sustainable jet fuel that lessens carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere.

The technology

LanzaTech developed a unique carbon recycling technology that works like traditional fermentation – but instead of using sugars and yeast to make alcohol, the company uses bacteria to convert carbon-rich waste gases, such as those found at industrial manufacturing sites, to fuels and chemicals like ethanol.

The ethanol can be used for a range of low carbon products, including alcohol-to-jet synthetic paraffinic kerosene (ATJ-SPK) which is now eligible to be used in commercial flights at up to 50% blends with conventional jet fuel.

LanzaTech turned to the catalytic expertise of PNNL, a US Department of Energy National Laboratory, which developed a unique catalytic process and proprietary catalyst to upgrade the ethanol to ATJ-SPK.

The catalyst removes oxygen from the ethanol in the form of water, and then combines the remaining hydrocarbon molecules to form chains large enough for jet fuel without forming aromatics that lead to soot when burned.

Next steps

LanzaTech then scaled up the technology. The ethanol was converted to 18,000 litres of ATJ-SPK at LanzaTech’s Freedom Pines facility in Georgia, meeting all the specifications required for use in commercial aviation.

In April 2018, based on LanzaTech’s Research Report, an international standards body approved the ethanol-to-jet fuel pathway for aviation turbine fuel at a blend ratio of up to 50%.

The fuel is produced at a LanzaTech facility in Georgia, which the company plans to expand to allow it to produce millions of litres of low-carbon jet fuel annually.