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Aviation fuel: Trash landings

Subsidy adjustments revive BA's interest in producing jet fuel from waste

What a difference a day makes. The UK's Department for Transport, on 19 September, published changes to the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation directive. The amendments extended financial incentives beyond ground transport to include aircraft for the first time. This was enough to prompt British Airways (BA) to take another look at the idea, first mooted a few years ago, of converting hundreds of thousands of tonnes of household waste into sustainable jet fuel. With the subsidy changes recently announced, the economic feasibility of the scheme looks more optimistic.

BA says it's partnering with Velocys, a renewable fuels company, to design a series of waste plants to create fuel. A final investment decision is expected in 2019. The plants will process rubbish that at present goes to landfill or is incinerated, turning it into clean-burning sustainable fuels. The scheme, according to BA, won't just reduce the 15 million tonnes of rubbish sent to landfill sites each year in the UK. It will also deliver a more than 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared with conventional fossil fuel, resulting in 60,000 tonnes of CO2 savings each year.

Big dreams

BA is thinking big. It says the scheme will produce enough fuel to power all its Boeing 787 Dreamliners operating from London to San Jose and New Orleans in the US for a whole year. The airline is planning "to supply its aircraft fleet with increasing amounts of sustainable jet fuel in the next decade".

The move towards sustainable fuel in aircraft is gathering momentum. By 2050, the 191 member countries of the International Civil Aviation Organisation have pledged to cut emissions to 50% of 2005 levels. The mandatory start-date for this carbon offset and reduction scheme is 2027, but 68 states have said they will begin the process on a voluntary basis from 2021.

There's still a long way to go to achieve these goals. Michael Gill, environment chief at the International Air Transport Association, admits that "the current levels of alternative fuels used in aviation remain relatively small in absolute terms. But it's about how far we've come in a relatively short space of time." A decade ago test flights using sustainable fuels hadn't even begun. Since 2011, 22 airlines have operated thousands of commercial flights with blends of up to 50% of sustainable fuel.

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