Can Trash Fuel British Airways?

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BritishAirAccording to the Air Transport Action Group, the commercial aviation industry wants to achieve carbon-neutral growth by 2020. Trash could be the solution.  With the number of flights increasing around the world daily, is this pie-in-the-sky thinking? Not according to British Airways and Solena Fuels, who are working together on the GreenSky Project.

In a former oil refinery outside of London, a new production plant is set to turn waste that otherwise would be headed for the landfill site into jet fuel. The process will apply high temperature plasma gasification technology to non-recyclables, transforming it into synthetic gas and then into liquid hydrocarbons. The end result works like the synthetic fuels made from coal and natural gas that airlines have been using for about a decade. Unlike a biofuel such as ethanol, it’s safe to use at 50,000 feet in the air.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’ parent company IAG, told The Telegraph earlier this year that the recycled fuel will allow the carrier to significantly reduce its carbon emissions.

“The sustainable jet fuel produced each year will be enough to power our flights from London City Airport twice over, with carbon savings the equivalent of taking 150,000 cars off the road,” he explained.

Green-Sky-London_site-viewBritish Airways is going to buy over $500 million of the garbage fuel and since London produces about 18 million tons of waste each year, the company will have no shortage of supply.

Cost is not a factor since the trash fuels works out to be around the same price as regular jet fuel. “The city is already paying the landfill–and since we’re replacing the landfill, the city will actually pay us to take the trash,” Robert Do, CEO of Solena Fuels, explained to Fast Company magazine. “And the good news about working with waste is the infrastructure is already there. You’ve got trucks picking up the trash and sorting and delivering. We can take advantage of that.”

The plan to use biofuel has been perculating within the industry for some time. Boeing and Brazilian aerospace manufacturer Embraer announced in May that they would form a join research centre to help develop Brazil’s sustainable aviation biofuel industry. The research is expected to focus on feedstock production and processing technologies.

Having a free supply gives Solena a big advantage over those working on bio-based alternative fuels. “Our production cost is significantly lower than if we had to go out and buy grain and cultivate crops. And we’re not using hundreds of thousands of acres which could be used for food,” Do told Fast Company. Initially, at least, they plan to use only about half a million tons, which will provide a tiny amount of the fuel British Airways uses–just 2 percent.

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Over time, British Airways plans to keep increasing its use of the fuel. Solena eventually hopes to begin selling to other airlines. But although they say there’s plenty of opportunity for expansion, especially in cities that don’t currently recycle, fuel from trash will never fully supply everything the airline industry uses.

“If you use all of the waste around the world, you’d probably reach 20 percent to 25 percent of aviation fuel,” said Do. “But that’s a massive amount.”

British Airways has estimated that using the fuel could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 95 percent compared to conventional fuel. And that doesn’t include the emissions offset from methane, the potent gas that trash creates when it rots in landfills.

Gold from garbage? Sort of. Green gas from trash just might make our skies a little cleaner.

For more information, check out this article from The Telegraph, an overview of the project from Solena Fuels, this article from Fast Company, and this post from the Aviation Blog by Boeing/Embraer. For another feature article about biofuels, click here.

 

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Maureen Littlejohn

Maureen, a seasoned travel writer and communications consultant, currently lives in Hanoi and works with the Uniterra program as a communications/marketing advisor for a local partner college.

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