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Virgin Group plans to use low-carbon fuel made from plastic waste

The Independent logo The Independent 17/02/2022 Lucy Thackray
Flying high: Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330neo - Virgin Atlantic Airways © Virgin Atlantic Airways

Flying high: Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330neo

- Virgin Atlantic Airways

Virgin Group has announced that it plans to source lower-carbon fuel made from waste plastic for future flights.

In a bid to tackle both the problem of excess plastic and ease the use of fossil fuels in aviation, the company - which owns Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Orbit among other ventures - has partnered with technology firm Agilyx on the project, which aims “to research and develop lower carbon fuel facilities to help address plastic pollution and the global transition to net zero”.

Agilyx specialises in chemical conversion technology, and is aiming to help the aviation world to use plastics destined for landfill to create crude oil, from which lower-carbon fuel can be made.

The move is part of the company’s wider goal of becoming net zero by 2050.

“We cannot keep wasting all of this plastic, throwing it away, littering our oceans… this is valuable material,” Agilyx CEO Tim Stedman told City AM.

“The key thing here is that this is an innovative, fast moving, project. We’re aiming together with Virgin to have real impact, at real scale, in this challenge we have with waste and the need to move to a lower carbon economy and eventually net zero,” he added.

“It’s very exciting, a first step in a journey that’ll really help us deliver on both angles.”

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The first plastic-to-fuel manufacturing plant is set to open in the US, with a potential UK site to follow.

Only nine per cent of plastics are currently being recycled, with the vast majority destined for landfill.

It follows last week’s news that Virgin Atlantic has signed a deal with Neste Oyi to supply 2.5 million litres of neat Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which will be delivered in the first half of 2022 to London Heathrow.

In September 2021, British Airways operated its first flight using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The airline said the flight from London Heathrow to Glasgow demonstrated how “aviation is decarbonising”.

Earlier in 2021, its parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG), became the first European airline group to commit to powering 10 per cent of its flights with sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

However, critics of SAF point out that it must be blended with kerosene in order to be used for flights, and cause at least as many inflight emissions.

The aviation industry has also encountered problems in scaling up this type of fuel for commercial use.

“With the best will in the world, scalability is a massive issue – because SAFs currently take far more money and resources to create than fossil fuels,” says The Independent’s travel editor, Helen Coffey.

“And the ways in which you could swiftly increase the scale – for instance, by annexing great swathes of land to grow single, fast-growing crops – are a nightmare for biodiversity, and raise big red flags at a point when we need to be using land to feed a growing population.”

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