Jet fuel will never be green, but Virgin Atlantic is at least avoiding the use of virgin fossil fuels with its new ethanol-based fuel. It’s called Lanzanol, and it’s made from the waste gases from steel mills.
Lanzanol is a low-carbon « alcohol-to-jet » fuel that could reduce carbon emissions by up to 65% compared to regular jet fuel, according to its maker LanzaTech, which has partnered with Virgin. So far, they’ve managed to make about 1,500 gallons. But since a Boeing 747 burns around a gallon a second, or five gallons per mile, so you’d get about 300 miles before you ran out of this batch of Lanzanol.
But that’s not the point. If air travel is to continue, we need to cut down the CO2 it produces. One way is to make fewer flights, which is unlikely to say the least. The other is to use low-carbon fuels.
The source for the fuel is interesting, derived, via fermentation, from the waste gasses collected from steel mills. In this case, LanzaTech partnered with a steel maker to build a facility for this purpose. The process takes the gas—mostly carbon monoxide—and uses microbes to ferment it and produce fuel and chemicals. The principal product in this case is ethanol, which is then mixed with fossil fuels to make fuel for cars and, now, jet planes.
There are a few advantages to this process. One is that the carbon-monoxide waste isn’t burned at source, which already saves a lot of CO2 from being pumped into the atmosphere. This could save up a third of the gas that is currently wasted. The other is, of course, that the fuel replaces fossil fuels.
The first flight with the biofuel could take place as early as 2017. If successful, says Virgin in a press release, the company would seek approval to use it in commercial flights.