Virgin Atlantic and Rolls-Royce have confirmed a successful ground test of a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) blend with the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine. SAF can deliver CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of more than 70% whilst performing like traditional jet fuel. Confirming the safety of the fuel marks a key milestone in the project, the next stage of which will be the world’s first 100% SAF flight across the Atlantic. Virgin Atlantic plans to fly a SAF-fuelled Boeing 787 Dreamliner from London Heathrow airport to New York JFK airport on 28th November 2023.
Today, SAF represents less than 0.1% of jet fuel volumes, and fuel standards allow for just a 50% SAF blend in commercial jet engines. The one-off Virgin Atlantic flight in November will demonstrate the potential of SAF as a 100% drop-in replacement for fossil fuel – and today, not tomorrow.
The consortium involved in the project also include fuel suppliers Air BP and Virent, who will supply 60 tonnes of SAF to the airline, to support consortium research, testing and the flight itself. The SAF will be produced through the Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) pathway as well as synthetic aromatic kerosene (SAK) SAF at an 88% and 12% blend ratio.
The SAF trial is significant for aviation, demonstrating the potential for 100% SAF to be used in today’s engine, airframes and fuel infrastructure for long-haul flight. It is also a major step for Virgin Atlantic, as the airline is investigating sustainability measures that can help it meet the Net Zero targets for 2050. The airline says that collectively the aviation industry must go further, to develop a UK SAF industry and meet aviation’s 10% SAF target by 2030.
The Virgin Atlantic-led SAF consortium, joint funded by the UK’s Department for Transport, includes Rolls-Royce, Boeing, University of Sheffield, Imperial College London and the Rocky Mountain Institute. While the successful bench engine test is a key milestone, further permissions and safety approvals are required before the flight can take off in November.
Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, commented: “The 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel transatlantic flight will be a historic moment in aviation’s roadmap to decarbonisation. Alongside fleet transformation, SAF is the most readily available way for our industry to decarbonise, but currently there’s not enough supply and without it and the radical collaboration required to produce it, we can’t meet our 2030 targets. We need UK government support to create a UK SAF industry to allow for every single flight out of the UK to operate with 100% SAF – if we make it, we can fly it.”
Rob Watson, president of civil aerospace at Rolls-Royce, added that: “We are incredibly proud that our Trent 1000 engines will power the first ever flight using 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel across the Atlantic. Confirming that we have successfully completed the ground test of the Trent 1000 engine, using the chosen 100% SAF blend, gives us increased confidence for the engine’s performance and operation ahead of the flight this November. The flight will represent an incredible milestone for the entire aviation industry in its journey towards net zero carbon emissions.”