The UK’s department for transport, in partnership with the innovation agency – Innovate UK – has launched a competition to support the aviation industry to achieve a net-zero transatlantic flight on a commercial aircraft using 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) within one year.
The pioneering flight, on an aircraft powered by 100% SAF, is expected to take off in 2023, making it the world’s first net-zero emissions transatlantic flight.
The UK’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the ambitious challenge to the industry during his visit to the US. Meeting with airline executives, he invited the international sector to work closely with the UK government to deliver the demonstrator flight in 2023, paving the way for flights on the transatlantic route, and many more, to be powered solely by low-carbon fuel.
The announcement on May 14, 2022 underscores the government’s commitment to driving forward the SAF industry, which has the potential to deliver significant carbon savings, improve domestic fuel security, support thousands of green jobs and put flying on a more sustainable path.
Industry estimates suggest that the UK SAF industry could support up to 5,200 UK jobs directly, and augment around 13,600 more through global exports – helping to level up the UK and boost the economy. The industry estimates its annual turnover could reach £2.3 billion by 2040.
The new initiative has come out of the Jet Zero Council, a partnership between industry and government that aims to deliver new technologies and innovative ways to cut aviation emissions while supporting the UK economy.
The announcement is an important part of plans to reduce emissions from aviation to net-zero. Currently, one of the highest single emitters of greenhouse gases, aviation is a big challenge when it comes to making transport green, but the investment and innovations such as SAF are there to make guilt-free flying a reality.
The fuel, made from waste materials, such as household waste or used cooking oil, offers greenhouse gas emissions savings of more than 70% compared to conventional fossil jet fuel when fully replacing kerosene. When combined with greenhouse gas removals, 100% SAF will enable the delivery of a net-zero flight.
About the development, Shapps said, “This trailblazing net-zero emissions flight, a world first, will demonstrate the vital role that sustainable aviation fuel can play in decarbonising aviation in line with our ambitious net-zero targets. That’s not just great news for the environment, it’s great news for passengers who will be able to visit the Big Apple without increasing damaging greenhouse gas emissions.”
He added that it was crucial to place sustainability at the heart of the aviation industry’s recovery from COVID-19. “I look forward to working with them on this challenge, which will lower the impact flying across the Atlantic has on the planet.”
Current jet fuel specifications do not allow flights to use 100% SAF, because of which SAF use needs to be complemented by additional decarbonisation measures to be fully net-zero. Through the initiative, the UK government attempts to underscore its commitment to accelerate the testing and approval of 100% SAF to unlock the full decarbonisation potential of this technology.
Delivering the transatlantic flight announced would help to gather the data needed to support ongoing and future work to test and certify sustainable aviation fuel while exploring how engine efficiency improvements, flight optimisation and greenhouse gas removals can contribute to achieving net-zero flights.
Tim Alderslade, Chief Executive of Airlines UK said, “UK airlines strongly support the development of a UK SAF industry, which will play a vital role in helping our sector deliver net-zero emissions by 2050, as we are committed to doing. This announcement will provide additional momentum to achieving this and, alongside the recent £180 million in treasury support for the development of new UK SAF plants, demonstrates the commitment of government to making SAF a key part of the decarbonisation of aviation.”
He added that the need of the hour was to turbocharge production in order to build the initial three SAF plants by 2025.
“UK airlines have shown real commitment to making this happen with our partnerships with Philipps 66, Velocys and LanzaTech,” Alderslade stated, adding, “We look forward to working with ministers through the Jet Zero Council to continue to explore mechanisms to attract the required private investment – in addition to a planned mandate – so we can help deliver the government’s 10% SAF uptake goal by 2030.”
Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce plc said the move was an exciting and ambitious challenge. “This is an exciting and ambitious challenge, which Rolls-Royce is ready to support having successfully tested our large commercial aero engines on 100% SAF over the last year.”
“We have the technology to help the UK government achieve its objectives and we look forward to working closely with them to deliver this milestone transatlantic flight. Just over 100 years ago, Rolls-Royce powered the first ever transatlantic flight and now we have the innovation and expertise to power the next generation of sustainable aircraft.”
LanzaTech CEO, Jennifer Holmgren, said that waste-based feedstocks are important as they offer an economic path to much-needed volumes of SAF.
“We applaud the UK government’s leadership in working with industry and setting ambitious goals for the aviation sector. It is only by working together, that we will see the transformative change needed to deliver on the commitments to meet net-zero.”
Indro Mukerjee, CEO of Innovate UK, which is running the competition with the Department for Transport said, “Innovate UK proudly supports this pioneering initiative. This flight, driven through collaboration and bold ambition, is a perfect example of how innovation can and will shape our future lives. The speed at which this has become a reality is down to the inspiration, ingenuity and investment of all those involved.”
Clearing the SAF Roadblocks
Fuel specifications are not the only barrier preventing a higher uptake of SAF. High fuel production costs, technology risk at commercial scale and feedstocks availability are some of the challenges that government and industry are jointly working to overcome in order to build a thriving domestic SAF sector.
To do so, the UK government is exploring a SAF mandate and supporting the UK SAF industry with £180 million of funding over the next 3 years, aiming to accelerate the commercialisation of SAF plants and the establishment of a fuel testing clearing house in the UK, as announced in the Net Zero Strategy.
This support will build on the progress made through previously advanced fuels grant funding programmes, such as the £15 million Green Fuels, Green Skies grant funding competition.
In addition to the £180 million funding, £400 million of funding is being made available through a government partnership with Breakthrough Energy Catalyst to drive private sector investment into the next generation of green technologies, through which UK SAF projects may seek additional capital.