Virgin Atlantic Goes Circular with Innovative Airplane Fuel

In a 2016 report, UPS* and GreenBiz found awareness of circular economy was not only on the rise, but a majority of companies (86%) believed circular economy principles would be important to their organization in the next two years. And the data has proved to be accurate: we’ve seen many examples of companies implementing circular economy principles, from Vodafone’s New Every Year/Red Hot buy-back program to Reformation clothing’s new partnership with thredUp to produce new markets for secondhand clothing. The newest example creates a first-of-its kind engine fuel that not only recaptures industrial waste, but also opens new possibilities for the future of sustainable fuels.

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This Tuesday, a Virgin Atlantic flight from Orlando to London Gatwick demonstrated a new form of low-carbon fuel in action. The flight is a result of a partnership between LanzaTech and Epic Fuels to create a fuel mix made in part from captured greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The innovation taps into LanzaTech’s carbon recycling technologies to capture “carbon-rich industrial waste gases, such as those from steel mills,” that would otherwise go up a chimney and into the atmosphere. LanzaTech then recycles this into a product that can be blended into jet fuel. This sustainable fuel option has the potential to achieve “70 percent lower carbon emissions compared to regular fossil jet.” LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren explains the impact this could have on implementing circular economy practices from the construction of a jet to how it is fueled: “[W]e no longer have to imagine a day when a steel mill can make the steel for the plane and the fuel to power that plane by using its waste gases.” And the innovation can make a huge impact on the entire industry: Virgin Atlantic states the “process could be retrofitted to 65 percent of the world’s steel mills, to produce nearly one-fifth of all aviation fuel used each year, at a commercially viable price.”

In the words of Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, at last month’s Global Climate Action Summit, “Climate change is undoubtedly the defining issue of our time, and working together across nations, organizations and communities is the only way that we can tackle this enormous task and seize the huge opportunities.” Virgin Atlantic’s new announcement shows how companies can be leaders in this journey, creating innovative technologies that not only reduce GHG emissions, but also create commercially-viable solutions that can disrupt entire industries.