Sustainable aviation fuel winners announced

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LSE presents the ideas behind its runner-up entry at the event in London in May

A competition challenging scientists to come up with an aviation fuel of the future concluded in May, giving some sense of the scope and imagination being brought to bear on this topic.

Run by British Airways in collaboration with Cranfield University, the BA 2119: Future of Fuels challenge, was launched on 30 November 2018 and called on British universities to develop a new or different pathway to achieve global leadership in the development of sustainable aviation fuels. The airline posed the question of how to power a long-haul flight for at least five hours and produce zero CO2 emissions.

On 3 May the winner was announced as University College London, outflanking runner-up teams from Heriot Watt and LSE.

UCL’s solution would turn household waste into jet fuel, building plants to convert the waste near landfill sites across the country. The team estimates that this could deliver 3.5 million tonnes of jet fuel annually by 2050, resulting in negative emissions and the equivalent of taking more than 5.5 million cars off the road every year.

Christie Burley from LSE devised a solution that would harvest the CO2 produced by existing industrial plants and convert it into jet fuel. She estimated that her technology could produce 1.95 million tonnes of jet fuel a year and consume 9.7 million tonnes of CO2, which is around eight per cent of global industrial CO2 use.

Heriot Watt devised a sustainable solution which would see biomass – such as wood and agricultural crops – converted to fuel, producing 2.4 million tonnes per year of fuel for aviation. The team successfully produced a small quantity of the environmentally friendly fuel made from waste wooden pellets and carbon dioxide. The pellets are heated in a gasification unit to create carbon monoxide and hydrogen while, separately, waste carbon dioxide is put through an electrolyser to form a second gas.

This solution would take out more carbon dioxide from the environment than would be produced when it is used to power aircraft. It is estimated that this would be the equivalent of taking more than three million cars a year off the road.

British Airways Chairman and CEO Alex Cruz presented the winning team with its prize. UCL received £25,000 and an invitation to present to the IAG Board, as well as at two of the largest sustainable aviation conferences in the world – the IATA Alternative Fuels Symposium in New Orleans in November and at the Annual Sustainability Summit.