Virgin Atlantic Airways says it may have found the best source yet for aviation biofuel.
Earlier this month, the airline announced a partnership with New Zealand low-carbon fuel specialist LanzaTech to develop an aviation fuel by converting waste gases from steel mills using special microbes.
'We have been following a number of paths in the past years, but this is the one we are most excited about,' said Andrew Fyfe, the carrier's general manager for Hong Kong.
When Virgin launched the world's first test flight on biofuel in 2008, environmentalists cast doubt on the effectiveness of the alternative fuel in slashing carbon emissions and said it could drive up food costs and lead to deforestation.
Fyfe said the new technology created no such problems.
'We capture one-third of the waste gas, which would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere, and convert it into valuable chemicals through a process of fermentation. So it does not involve competition for land mass,' he said.
A pilot facility in New Zealand is already producing 150,000 gallons (567,800 litres) of gas-derived jet fuel a year, but the first commercial facility will be in China and will start producing 100,000 gallons next year and 30 million gallons a year by 2013.
Fyfe said that volume was more than enough to cover the airline's daily service between Shanghai and London, and another plant will be set up in India to support its daily service between New Delhi and London in 2013. The use of the fuel on the two routes will cut its carbon emissions by about 50,000 tonnes a year.
LanzaTech is in discussions with steel mills around London's Gatwick Airport over plans to start up another facility for the British carrier. A full-scale plant will be able to support half of Virgin's routes from Gatwick.
'China currently produces about 50 per cent of the world's steel, and 90 per cent of that steel is consumed domestically, so there are good volumes there,' Fyfe said.
It is understood a few airlines have already approached LanzaTech for the technology - which will produce fuel at a similar cost to present jet fuel but will save 50 per cent of carbon emissions during production.
The biofuel supplier says up to 65 per cent of the world's steel mills can be retrofitted with its process, and produce up to 30 billion gallons of fuel each year, or 37.5 per cent of the world's total jet fuel consumption.
Number of gallons of aviation biofuel that could be produced a year if 65 per cent of steel mills adopt the new process