The historic transatlantic flight on 100% sustainable aviation fuel: Q&A with Virent leaders
On Tuesday, Nov. 28, Virgin Atlantic operated the world’s first transatlantic flight on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) by a commercial airline. The Boeing 787, using Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, was fueled by a blend that included BioForm® synthesized aromatic kerosene (SAK) made by Virent, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corp. BioForm SAK is a critical ingredient that enabled the flight to be powered without any petroleum-based fuel.
It was just the latest of a string of successful demonstration flights that Virent has helped make possible – others have included United Airlines, Bell Helicopter, Emirates Airline, and Gulfstream. We spoke with Virent President and General Counsel Dave Kettner and Vice President of Strategy and Business Development Bob Rozmiarek, both of whom were on the flight.
Q: First, what exactly did Virent contribute to this flight, and why is it important?
Dave Kettner: Our BioForm® SAK provided a critical component that made this flight possible. Most sustainable aviation fuel, or SAF, has to be blended with petroleum fuel to work in today’s jet engines. This is because SAF generally consists of paraffinic compounds but lacks the aromatics of petroleum-based jet fuel. BioForm® SAK, made out of plant sugars, is almost entirely aromatics, and so when we blend it with paraffinic SAF, we end up with a jet fuel that’s 100% bio-based and has the right composition to work in jet engines without making any modifications. In other words, it’s a “drop-in” equivalent to petroleum fuel.
Q: How did Virent become involved in this flight? What other companies were involved?
Bob Rozmiarek: We have been engaged in previous 100% drop-in SAF demonstrations with various engine manufacturers. The main interaction for this project started through contacts the team had at Rolls Royce. We started talking directly to Virgin Atlantic about a year ago. They quickly saw that our SAK blended with HEFA (hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids) would be the best way to achieve a transatlantic flight on 100% SAF. With the paraffinic fuel made out of waste fats by Air bp, and our bio-based aromatics made from plant sugars, Air bp was able to blend a fuel that Rolls Royce, the engine manufacturer; Boeing, airframe manufacturer; and Virgin, the airline operator, could test and agree on.
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Q: And how did it go?
Bob Rozmiarek: It was flawless. On board the flight were lead engineering experts from Rolls-Royce, Boeing, Virgin and others, and they were all tied into the monitoring of the engines and other aircraft systems as the flight progressed. We are still waiting to get all of the data collected on the flight, as well as other pre-test data. We already know that 100% SAF blends of HEFA and our SAK emit up to 70% less particulate matter than jet fuel, which can mean less contrails. But from the point of view of a passenger, there was no difference whatsoever.
Q: So representatives of Virgin Atlantic and Virent were on the historic flight... Who else was on board?
Dave Kettner: The researchers were from Imperial College London and the University of Sheffield. And there were also project-team members from Boeing, Rolls-Royce, management consulting company ICF, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the UK Department for Transport, which is analogous to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Q: So what does this mean for the future of aviation?
Dave Kettner: The next thing for us to do – and by “us” I mean SAF manufacturers, airlines, engine manufacturers, regulators, and everyone else with a stake in SAF’s future – is to concentrate our efforts on how best to scale up SAF production so that it can become a larger percentage of the global aviation fleet’s fuel mix. Marathon and Virent have shown multiple times that Virent’s technology can make SAF drop-in ready, and for us – and the rest of the SAF industry – the focus is regulations and market forces to make SAF feasible in the long term.
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