Virgin Atlantic Wants to Fly Around the World on Second-Hand Carbon

Virgin Atlantic announced that its planes will soon be able to fly from London to China on fuel that carries half the carbon burden.

Virgin Atlantic announced this week that its planes will soon be able to fly from London to China on fuel that produces half the carbon (and presumably half the guilt) of regular jet fuel. This is semi-miraculous news, as flying is one of the most climate-destructive activities that humans engage in: If you’re an affluent city dweller, it’s likely your plane trips wipe out the carbon savings you manage in the rest of your life. And although electric planes exist, they’re small and not likely to grow anytime soon, so the vast majority of planes will continue to burn fuel to propel their mass through the sky.

As a rule, if that fuel is not petroleum-based, it’s plant-based biofuel. But Virgin is moving in a new direction, partnering with the New Zealand-based LanzaTech to harvest the waste gas of steel manufacturers as a feedstock for its fuel. Like most alternative fuel technologies, LanzaTech’s depends on microbes engineered to perform a specific task. These microbes, which are proprietary to the company, feast on carbon monoxide and excrete ethanol. (Another partner, Swedish Biofuels, converts the ethanol into jet fuel.) Fifteen billion gallons of jet fuel could come from the waste gas from the steel industry each year, according to Sir Richard Branson, the president of Virgin Atlantic.

Think of the carbon here like hand-me-down clothes. Steel companies buy shiny new carbon in the form of fossil fuels, and gets all the use they can out of it. They then hand off the used carbon to the airline industry, which gives it a second wear. Although the carbon still enters the atmosphere in the end, the total amount of carbon that humanity has used to go about its business decreases.

The steel industry doesn’t have anything better to do with its carbon, either. From 1990 to 2009, the American steel industry decreased its emission per ton of steel by 35 percent, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute, and industry groups say that current steel production processes have reached their maximum carbon efficiency. To tamp down its emissions further, the industry is pursuing strategies like carbon capture, which haven’t had much success so far. So creating a “co-product” like jet fuel from steel production’s waste is exactly the sort of idea the industry is looking to buy into.

The United States has been living for the past few decades as if we had infinite stores of carbon to spend. But by now it’s clear that the balance in our carbon bank account is dwindling. We can keep try to keep living in the manner to which we are accustomed, but to keep up our globe-trotting ways, we need to do more with less. Flying on second-hand carbon seems like a no-brainer.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user xlibber

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