Virgin Atlantic makes first transatlantic flight with sustainable aviation fuel

The world’s first transatlantic flight using 100 per cent sustainable aviation fuel touched down in New York yesterday (November 28, 2023) after departing from London Heathrow Airport.


Part-funded by the UK Department for Transport, Flight100 - a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 787-9 powered by Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines – represents a successful collaboration between the airline and project partners that include Sheffield University, Imperial College London, Boeing, Rolls-Royce and BP.

Virgin Atlantic said that Flight100 proves Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is a safe drop-in replacement for fossil derived jet fuel and the only mid-term viable solution for decarbonising long-haul aviation.

“You can consider this a type of Moonshot flight,” said Professor Mohamed Pourkashanian, managing director at Sheffield University’s Translational Energy Research Centre and Sustainable Aviation Fuels Innovation Centre (SAF-IC). “The overall aim is to show that it is possible to use SAF in existing engines.”

The SAF used on Flight100 was made up of 88 per cent HEFA (Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids) supplied by AirBP and 12 per cent SAK (Synthetic Aromatic Kerosene) supplied by Virent, a subsidiary of Marathon Petroleum Corporation. The HEFA is made from waste fats while the SAK is made from plant sugars.

According to Virgin Atlantic, SAF delivers CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70 per cent whilst performing like the traditional jet fuel it replaces. SAF, however,  currently represents under 0.1 per cent of global jet fuel volumes and fuel standards allow for a 50 per cent SAF blend in commercial jet engines.

In a statement, Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic said: “There’s simply not enough SAF and it’s clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment. This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we’ll fly it.”

As well as reducing CO2 emission, the use of SAF is claimed to lessen the impact of particulate matter in contrails, which are thought to contribute to the climate impact of flying – particularly at night - by trapping heat and causing a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere.

According to team member Dr Marc Stettler, from Imperial's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, in the right conditions, water forms droplets on particulate matter emitted by the engine that freeze and become a contrail. Prof Pourkashanian confirmed that there is significant reduction in particulate emissions from SAF at high-altitude.

“[SAF-IC] has an auxiliary power unit on site, looking at the effect of fuels on different components,” he said. “We have Tier 1 and Tier 2 pre-screening facilities to test whether this fuel is good enough for an aircraft engine.”  

Prof Pourkashanian continued: “It was great to bring together the resources of two leading energy research universities and take another step towards decarbonising aviation.”