BA to fly planes powered by ‘recycled cooking oil’ in bid to reduce emissions

Mar 30, 2022

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The U.K. flag carrier has joined forces with Phillips 66 – the renowned Texas rodeo sponsor and owner of the Jet petrol station network in Britain — in an ambitious bid to power its planes with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

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Hailing the move as a “breakthrough moment” for the industry, BA said its deal with the fuel giant makes it the “first airline in the world to use SAF produced on a commercial scale in the UK”.

SAF won’t replace fossil fuel completely, however. Instead, BA says it will be pumped into the “existing fuel pipeline … [to be] blended with conventional fossil fuel before it reaches the aircraft.”

That’s because SAF is a “drop-in solution” that can be mixed with the usual fossil fuel to make a more environmentally friendly hybrid.

Related: Could the beleaguered A380 be the key to unlocking fossil-free flying?

“This essentially means that hundreds of flights could be operating with a SAF blend in the fuel mix at low levels,” the airline said. “BA’s SAF supply will in effect be the first to help ‘green’ the UK’s jet fuel supply.”

BA first road-tested SAF last September, when it flew an A320neo from Heathrow to Glasgow on a 35% SAF and 65% jet fuel blend.

Comparing it with a flight that took place on the exact route 11 years ago, the fuel-blend flight reduced CO2 emissions by 62% thanks to innovations including the SAF, continuous climb and descent and electric ground operations vehicles.

Related: Swiss on track to be the first airline to use ‘solar fuel’

“Our supplies of SAF from Phillips 66 Limited will allow us to progress with our ambitious roadmap to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner and will play a role in our commitment, as part of International Airlines Group, to power 10% of flights with SAF by 2030,” said BA chief Sean Doyle.

“Progressing the development and commercial scale-up of sustainable aviation fuel will be a game-changer and crucial to reducing the aviation sector’s reliance on fossil fuels and improving the UK’s energy supply resilience.”

What exactly is SAF?

Where fossil fuels take millions of years to form underground, SAF is produced from materials that already exist above ground and in our environment.

They include waste gases, crop and forestry residues, household and commercial waste. Even used cooking oil, according to an explainer video BA has released.

Why? Because they all contain one magic ingredient: carbon.

Crucially, while SAF still releases the same chemicals into the atmosphere as fossil fuels when burned in a plane’s engine, they cut out 80% of the emissions created in the manufacture of jet fuel.

Headquartered in Texas, Phillips 66 is one of the largest oil giants in the world but has branched out into the sustainable energy sector of late.

Its Humber Refinery in Lincolnshire is where BA’s SAF will be made. There, sustainable waste feedstock, such as cooking oil, is refined and processed to produce thousands of tonnes of SAF before being pumped into the existing fuel pipeline.

That fuel, BA says, will be enough to reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by almost 100,000 tonnes, enough to power 700 net zero CO2 emissions flights between London and New York on its fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Parent company International Airlines Group is investing $400 million over the next 20 years into the development of SAF as part of its commitment to going net-zero by 2050.

BA has existing partnerships with several companies to develop plants and purchase sustainable fuel.

“Our partnership with Velocys to build a plant in Humberside will convert household and commercial waste into SAF,” says BA. “Our partnership with LanzaJet will provide us with SAF from a plant in the USA, which is expected to be available to power a number of our flights by the end of 2022.”

The race for green flight

British Airways is not the only airline seeking to innovate its way out of the aviation industry’s massive impact on the environment.

Earlier this month, for instance, Swiss announced its blueprint to becoming the first airline in the world to power planes by “liquid sunlight.”

The airline, which is owned by Lufthansa Group, has struck a deal with Synhelion, a company that uses solar energy to convert CO2 into a synthetic fuel called syngas.

Then, Airbus joined the race with a plan to channel its inner Frankenstein to raise the A380 from the dead… by installing a hydrogen-fuelled engine into the body of the jumbo.

Related: What your favourite airlines and hotels are doing to fight climate change

In cahoots with CFM International (a “50/50 joint venture between GE Aviation, a division of General Electric of the United States, and Safran Aircraft Engines”), it is an attempt to harness the power of hydrogen fuel technology in the body of an A380.

That plan, if Airbus can pull it off, could transform the A380 — or any other plane for that matter — into the world’s first zero-emission commercial aircraft by 2035.

According to the Air Travel Action Group, flights produced 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019 – about 2.1% of all human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.

The aviation industry as a whole, however, produces 12% of emissions from all transport sources, compared to 74% from road transport.

Featured image by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy.

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