British Airways launches sustainable aviation fuels university challenge

British Airways launches sustainable aviation fuels university challenge | British Airways,IAG

UK Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg addresses BA's 'Future of Fuels' event

Fri 7 Dec 2018 – British Airways is challenging UK academics to create a new generation of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) based on carbon reduction potential, innovation, value to the UK economy and feasibility to implement. In a collaboration with Cranfield University, a competition with a first prize of £25,000 to fund further research was launched at an event held at BA’s London headquarters attended by UK universities and industry experts. The award is part of a commitment from BA’s parent International Airlines Group (IAG) to invest a total of $400 million over 20 years in sustainable fuel development and long-term supply agreements. BA Chief Executive Alex Cruz said the UK could lead the world in developing and producing SAF. The airline also provided an update on its project with Velocys to produce renewable jet fuel from municipal waste.


“As an industry, we need to explore a range of options to reduce our emissions,” said Cruz. “Some of the best scientific minds in this field are based in the UK and are brilliantly equipped to develop a pathway for the UK to achieve global leadership in the development of sustainable alternative aviation fuels.”


University teams are required to submit expressions of interest in taking part in the ‘Future of Aviation Fuels Challenge’ by 18 January 2019, with an announcement of shortlisted teams expected later that month. Submissions of final proposals close at the end of March 2019 and an announcement of the winners will follow in May. As well as the £25,000 first prize, there is an award of £10,000 to the runner-up and a £5,000 ‘podium’ prize. The winning team will also be invited to present its proposal during the industry’s Global Sustainable Aviation Summit next May in Montreal and during the IATA Alternative Fuels Symposium in November to be held in the United States.


The judging panel will be made up of representatives from the UK Department for Transport, IATA, The Climate Group, British Airways and the UK Research & Innovation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. Judging criteria will be based on sustainability performance, degree of innovation, potential value to the UK economy, meeting UK aviation’s carbon reduction targets and ability to implement the proposal. Teams are encouraged to look to the future and consider non drop-in fuels as well as drop-in fuels where no modification of aircraft engines or supply logistics are required.


“We have a long-term partnership with Cranfield and sought their advice in the design of the competition,” IAG’s Group Head of Sustainability Jonathon Counsell told GreenAir. “Our objective is to get as many academic institutions as possible to enter its first stage.


“We are totally open-minded about what comes out of the competition but we hope it will trigger a number of research projects that academics will take forward and develop future opportunities.”


He claimed the UK was now one of the most attractive places in the world to lead in the development of sustainable aviation fuels. “We now have the skills, resources and policies in place,” he said. “We also have world-class academic institutions and there is a great opportunity to tap into them and help us make this ambition a reality.


“For British Airways, this is all about sustainability – we have some real challenges in meeting ambitious targets to reduce our carbon emissions, and alternative fuels can play a significant role. The UK can be a world leader and centre of expertise in the deployment and export of this technology, and help aviation globally to reduce its emissions, not just the UK’s.”


Leigh Hudson, Sustainable Fuels Manager at IAG, said forecasts showed 24% of aviation emission reductions could come from the use of sustainable aviation fuels by 2050. “Early development will likely be quite slow as we develop this new technology and we estimate up to 12 biorefineries will be in operation by 2030 before ramping up quickly after that.”


IATA’s Senior Manager for Aviation Environment, Robert Boyd, told the ‘Future of Aviation Fuels’ event that his organisation forecast the number of passengers travelling by air in the UK will rise from 142 million in 2017 to 275 million in 2027, an increase of 94%. Jet fuel uplift for international flights out of the UK would also grow to 23 billion litres annually by 2030. Given most of UK jet fuel is imported today, he said, the development of a home-grown sustainable aviation fuels industry would present a tremendous prospect to grow local industries and jobs, as well as being advantageous for the UK economy and its balance of payments. “Selling jet fuel is a profitable business so there is a financial opportunity for suppliers of this fuel,” he added.


The UK government also saw huge potential for sustainable fuels to help deliver on its climate commitments, said Aviation Minister Baroness Sugg, who opened the event. “We want to encourage more sustainable ways to travel and realise the potential for the UK to become a global leader in this sector. We do need industry, government and academia to come together to tackle the environmental issues that we face today and this Challenge complements the government’s work to promote the advanced fuels industry within the UK.


“I’m really encouraged how this Challenge to universities has focused on how we can deliver aviation carbon reductions in a way that maximises the economic benefit to the UK. It reinforces the message that aviation growth and carbon reduction in aviation can be compatible objectives. It is important we support aviation growth but it needs to be done in a sustainable way.”


She suggested the global market for advanced fuels could be worth up to £3 billion ($3.8bn) by 2030, with the UK’s share around £400 million ($510m) and provide nearly 10,000 jobs. The government will be publishing a consultation ‘green paper’ shortly on its future aviation strategy, which Sugg said would look at policy to assist in the long-term uptake of SAF.


British Airways is keenly awaiting a government announcement on second-stage funding under its Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition (F4C). Its project with Velocys to build a facility to produce renewable jet fuel from municipal solid waste (MSW) won a £434,000 ($580,000) grant from the UK Department for Transport in June towards project development (see article). Stage Two of the competition will provide a total of £20 million towards capital funding for building plants that will be shared among the winning entrants, believed to number four or five contesting projects in all.


However, Counsell says the Velocys project is not dependent on the outcome and is now “progressing well” in the pre-front end engineering and design (pre-FEED) phase. Counsell is expecting announcements during 2019 on the proposed site for the plant and the investors involved, with start of construction in late 2020. The current plan is to begin production of jet fuel in 2022 or 2023. He said no details of the capacity of the plant could be released just yet but expected it to be similar to other MSW projects elsewhere in the world being planned.


Counsell said British Airways would be a committed offtaker for the renewable jet fuel over the long term, although at a price still to be negotiated.


He is confident the Velocys project will not suffer the fate of the Solena project that was terminated in 2015 (see article). The investment landscape has changed considerably since then, he said, in particular due to the new support for SAF from the UK government and its decision last year to include aviation in the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation scheme.


“The RTFO has been absolutely key,” he said. “If you can get the policy incentive, potential investors are much more interested. Government opinion of your project is also important, so the winning of the first stage F4C grant is seen as a seal of approval.”


Another positive change has been the arrival of the big oil companies into the sustainable aviation fuels market, he added. “They weren’t there previously and now we’ve seen the BP move with Fulcrum, and Shell has signed up to support the Velocys/BA project. Again, this is important for investors.”


Investment by BA and Shell in the project is “one of the potential outcomes,” he said, “which will become clearer once it reaches financial close and the financial partners are announced.”


Next year marks the 100th anniversary of British Airways and the airline says it will be hosting events that will debate the future of flying over the next 100 years and focus on three key areas: fuels, aviation careers and customer experience.


“The BA centenary will aim to create a platform for steering thinking and asking questions of the people at BA, who are super-willing and energetic to want to leave a legacy behind around the topics that really matter when you think of the future, and one of them is fuels,” Cruz told GreenAir.


“The percentage of passengers interested in the environment is increasing very quickly, and they are very voluble. I am getting a growing number of letters and emails from customers about this and giving me their ideas. It pushes us to take leadership.


“As an industry, we need to explore a range of options to reduce our emissions. We’re already working with Velocys to build a plant that produces sustainable transport fuels from household waste that would otherwise go to landfill, but we don’t want to stop there. Some of the best scientific minds in the UK are based in the UK and are brilliantly equipped to develop a pathway for the UK to achieve global leadership in the development of sustainable alternative aviation fuels.”


British Airways will shortly be launching a microsite for the Future of Fuels Challenge but interested parties can find out more details in the meantime by emailing




IAG's Jonathon Counsell announces 'Future of Fuels Challenge':




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