Virgin ♥ LanzaJet fuel: “A real game changer for aviation,” says Branson

September 15, 2016 |

bd-ts-091616-lanzatech-smThere’s good news on the LanzaJet front. For the first time ever, LanzaTech has produced 1,500 gallons of jet fuel, derived from waste industrial gases from steel mills, via a fermentation process. The fuel has passed all its initial performance tests with flying colors.

The jet fuel is the result of a partnership between Virgin and LanzaTech that’s been underway since 2011. Meanwhile, the underlying Lanzahol is the result of a partnership between LanzaTech and Shougang, one of China’s largest steelmakers.

Those steel mill gases? That’s second chance carbon.

The Carbon Event Horizon

As our friend Jennifer Holmgren, CEO of LanzaTech, points out in any forum she ever speaks at, “the world is terribly close to 1.5 degrees which means we really need to get our butt in gear and start dealing with carbon; we need to keep fossils in the ground and the only way to do that is to stop thinking of carbon as a single use resource.”

It’s a reference to the two degree “carbon speed limit”. Where temperatures rise to more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Limiting climate change to below the two degree level is a primary goal of the Paris Climate Change Agreement. In fact, it is the Event which Paris Agreement precisely aims to avoid.

But it might as well be called the Carbon Event Horizon.

Like the event horizon of a black hole, we have no way of exactly knowing what will occur once we pass the two-degree threshold. But we suspect that the exotic pressures and temperatures will fundamentally warp our way of life in terrifying ways.

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Yikes.

Maybe we’ll find strategies to deal with a hotter, wetter world. Maybe those skies filled with kinetic energy won’t make storms more frequent and violent. Maybe coastal cities won’t be submerged underwater. Maybe when the rain moves and falls somewhere else we can still grow vegetables.  Maybe the trees won’t pack up and die with the hotter temperatures, like they do today. Maybe the wildfires won’t burn and the smoke won’t choke up the sky.

Maybe, maybe, maybe.

But why take a chance?

The Electric Problem

Meanwhile, there’s the electric problem.

All-electric cars reduce emissions. But although they have zero tailpipe emissions, they have emissions from the production of electricity.

In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a comprehensive report on this — including grid-by-grid data. Averaging it out, all-electric sedans in 2012 achieved a 32% reduction of carbon compared to the average light-duty passenger car. In other words, cars averaged 35 miles a gallon, but electrics averaged the equivalent emissions from gasoline-powered cars getting 52 MPG.

Couple of concerns, here.

One, vampire losses. The loss of charge when the car is idle and plugged into the wall. Used to be a noted Tesla problem, they have it down to 1-3 miles of charge per day range, in real-world reporting by Tesla drivers. Also, there’s the 8-15 percent energy loss from plug to car.

Accordingly, Green Car Reports concluded that the Tesla Model S, overall, has the same carbon efficiency as a 2013 Honda Civic. That car gets 32 miles per gallon.

So, here’s the problem. Climate change isn’t going to be solved by switching the world’s passenger fleet over to all-electrics. They solve the problem only if you would consider the climate change problem solved by everyone driving a Honda Civic.

Do you?

If not, consider all-electrics a part of the solution, but not the solution. Which is why dudes with lots of urgent calls on their attention — like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Tom Steyer, John Doerr and many others — formed the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. People who look at the hard data know that we have to have an accelerator on carbon reduction, above and beyond what all-electrics offer in the near-to-mid term.

Which means accelerating on second chance carbon.

The 60 Percent Solution

Why?

Since we’ve already accounted for the emission, second chance carbon is a “free pass” on carbon usage (excepting the energy consumed by the system itself). 60-80 percent reductions in transport emissions are possible, even routine, for vehicles using these low-carb fuels.

Every three gallons of fuel generated by second-chance carbon keeps two gallons of sequestered carbon (i.e. petroleum) in the ground.

The Further Benefit

As Dr. Holmgren points out, “we aren’t going to put electric planes up in the air nor electric chemicals in our yoga pants”. So there’s an extra benefit from Second Chance carbon fuels. They address challenges that electrics won’t. Good news for yoga enthusiasts.

Where do you get Second Chance Carbon?

LanzaTech makes some. There’s Lanzahol which works in passenger cars and drops carbon by 80 percent. There’s a jet fuel, which reduces carbon by 65 percent, according to preliminary testing.

Other companies are using Second Chance Carbon to make fuels or chemicals. Fulcrum BioEnergy is using municipal solid waste to replace fossil diesel and jet fuel. Enerkem is using the same type of material to replace fossil industrial chemicals.

Next steps for Virgin and LanzaTech

The pair are now set to continue to work with Boeing and a host of industry colleagues to complete the additional testing aircraft and engine manufacturers require before approving the fuel for first use in a commercial aircraft. Assuming all initial approvals are achieved, the innovative LanzaTech jet fuel could be used in a first of its kind proving flight in 2017.

Branson: “A game-changer”

Sir Richard Branson said: “This is a real game changer for aviation and could significantly reduce the industry’s reliance on oil within our lifetime. Virgin Atlantic was the first commercial airline to test a biofuel flight and continues to be a leader in sustainable aviation. We chose to partner with LanzaTech because of its impressive sustainability profile and the commercial potential of the jet fuel. Our understanding of low carbon fuels has developed rapidly over the last decade, and we are closer than ever before to bringing a sustainable product to the market for commercial use by Virgin Atlantic and other global airlines.”

The Bottom Line

Airlines need low-carb fuels if they are to avoid complex and perhaps strangulating carbon regulation and a plethora of carbon regimes that they take off from fly and emit over, and land in. So, it’s excellent news for Virgin and friends.

But let’s also look at the broader carbon problem in road transport, with open eyes and clear thinking. To avoid the Carbon Event Horizon, 60 percent solutions are needed in the near term. Low-carb fuel tech offers a nice pathway forward for steel mills such as ArcelorMittal — but also for governments and concerned citizens who see the urgency in the data and need tech that delivers big numbers quickly.

Reactions from the Stakeholders

Antonio Simoes, CEO of HSBC Bank

“We are proud to have provided support and funding to allow production of this innovative new fuel to move from sample size to small demo scale. This breakthrough is testament to what can be achieved when different industries work together to address climate change and support the shift to a low-carbon economy.”

Wang Tao, Chairman of the Beijing Shougang LanzaTech New Energy Technology

“Our partnership with LanzaTech symbolizes Shougang’s desire to create a sustainable future for China where industrial growth and environmental benefits go hand in hand. Ethanol made from recycled carbon in China can now be used to fuel a plane in the United Kingdom, using technology from the United States! We are honoured to be part of this truly global partnership to provide new sustainable pathways for low carbon fuels that do not impact the food chain or land use.”

Julie-Ann Felgar, Managing Director of Environmental Strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes

“Boeing is proud to work with Virgin Atlantic and LanzaTech to further expand the use of sustainable alternative aviation fuel. Our work with Virgin Atlantic over many years to move the needle on identifying technologies and partnerships, such as this effort with LanzaTech, reflects the innovative spirit and deep commitment of our industry to reduce our CO2 footprint.”

Barbara Bramble, Vice President for International Conservation and Corporate Strategies, at the National Wildlife Federation

“Safeguarding wildlife and habitat in the face of climate change is one of the biggest challenges of our time. Technologies that reduce carbon emissions in transportation while meeting broader sustainability objectives can help to avoid the worst impacts of climate change on our wildlife and the habitats they call home. The progress announced today on a new pathway to sustainable aviation fuel is tremendously exciting, and National Wildlife Federation congratulates the global team, led by Virgin Atlantic, who has worked to make this a reality.”

Rolf Hogan, Executive Director of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials

“RSB provides sustainability solutions for any biomaterial anywhere in the world and is the highest-rated global system for biofuels. Congratulations to Virgin Atlantic for being a true leader and innovator in this space, and for keeping sustainability at the forefront of their business. It is exciting to be part of the process that delivered sustainable and RSB certified ethanol for conversion to aviation fuel for Virgin Atlantic. We look forward to seeing many more examples like this across the world so that aviation can become a more sustainable form of transportation.”

Peter Bakker, President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development

“LanzaTech and Virgin Atlantic are demonstrating exactly the kind of innovative business leadership that the post-Paris world urgently needs. Congratulations to both companies for their ongoing commitment to developing this breakthrough product. Under the below50 initiative we look forward to more ground-breaking collaborations between investors, producers and consumers that will help to scale-up solutions to decarbonize the transport sector.”

John Holladay, Manager, Transportation Sector at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

“What this team is doing, capturing industrial waste gas- which can contain high levels of carbon monoxide gas – and turning it into jet fuel is almost magical. Our long term dream is making fuels and chemicals through recycling carbon. PNNL is proud to be involved with the project through bringing catalyst technology that builds on LanzaTech’s fermentation technology and we look forward to seeing the technology powering jets in the near future.”

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