As someone who travels a lot, I must admit that you can’t beat the convenience of air travel, which, despite the annoyances of unpredictable arrival times and security hassles, is still the only way to get from coast to coast in half a day. Unfortunately, as currently practiced, flying the friendly skies is deadly in terms of its greenhouse gas contribution. By some estimates, aviation industry emissions will reach 1.5 billion tons by 2025, an amount equal to half of what the entire European Union emits today. According to the IPCC, the industry currently accounts for 2-3 percent of total CO2, a number which is predicted to grow to somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 percent.
A good deal of money is being invested in new technologies to improve the industry’s energy efficiency, but is this really just an attempt to perfume a pig? Are we going to need to just simply bite the bullet and give up flying entirely? It’s a definite possibility, though I for one certainly hope not.
That won’t happen if Sir Richard Branson has anything to say about it. Branson recently announced that his Virgin Atlantic Airways is going to be running on waste-gas based fuel by 2014.
What exactly is waste-gas based fuel?
It is a fuel that is given off as a by-product of industrial steel production. Until now, it had been released into the atmosphere, so using it to displace new jet fuel is clearly a net improvement, especially if it can be efficiently converted to aviation fuel. This would definitely fall in to the category of low-hanging fruit.
The technology was developed in partnership with New Zealand-based LanzaTech, a company that specializes in the exploitation of industrial waste gases.
According to their website, “LanzaTech’s commercial plants will effectively convert a variety of nonfood, low value gas feed stocks into clean bioethanol and platform chemicals. Our process is able to utilise gases from industry, including steel mill, oil refinery and coal manufacturing waste gases, all with minimal conditioning.”
In a statement made to the press at the announcement, LanzaTech’s CEO, Dr. Jennifer Holmgren said, “This technology will enable airlines to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint by reusing gases that would otherwise have been emitted directly into the atmosphere. It promotes sustainable industrial growth, as the process enables manufacturing plants to recycle their waste carbon emissions.”
If all goes well with pilot studies in New Zealand and China, Virgin is prepared to go worldwide with this fuel.
LanzaTech says that 65 percent of the world’s steel mills are compatible with this process, and they can be found throughout the world. They estimate that the steel industry alone can deliver over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually.
How much is that? Well, according to the Air Transport Association, all US airlines currently use approximately 17.5 billion gallons per year, so this would represent over 85% of the US consumption.
According to Branson, “With oil running out, it is important that new fuel solutions are sustainable, and with the steel industry alone able to deliver over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, the potential is very exciting. This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially produced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel.”
Virgin has already pledged to reduce carbon emissions per passenger 30 percent by 2020. Other steps it has taken beyond renewable fuels include investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft and advocating for global carbon cap and trade.
This new technology is said to overcome the many land use issues generally associated with biofuels, while cutting lifecycle carbon emissions in half.
Some might not consider this new fuel truly sustainable since it depends entirely on fossil fuel-based steel production for its feedstock. It might be more appropriate to put it in the “do less harm” category, as something that can be used to buy some time until a more sustainable solution, like lighter-than-air, or hydrogen-powered planes can be found. But still, this is good news for all of us who need to fly and care about the impact on the planet.
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.
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