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Aviation's future: American Airlines buries CO2 and Virgin Atlantic flies the first 100% SAF flight

virgin atlantic plane in air
Image Credit: Virgin Atlantic

On the same day that Virgin Atlantic completed the first transatlantic flight to be 100% powered by sustainable aviation fuels, another commercial aviation giant, American Airlines partnered with the Memphis-based startup, Graphyte, to bury 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide permanently underground, underscoring the direction aviation is going in our increasingly warmer world.

Graphyte’s partnership with American Airlines is the startup’s first carbon removal purchase agreement. The startup, backed by Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, will be delivering its buried CO2 to the airline by 2026. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator, the 10,000 tons the startup will bury is equivalent to the emissions of 2,225 gas cars, the electricity of nearly 2,000 American homes, or that which is sequestered by nearly 12,000 acres of forest.

According to Graphyte, what separates its CO2 burial from different sequestration businesses is its “Carbon Casting” process which leverages readily available biomass, aka where plants store the carbon they capture, dries it out, pressures it into “carbon blocks,” and buries it forever.

“Carbon casting lets nature efficiently do the work of capturing CO2, then leverages engineering techniques to store it permanently,” the startup’s founder and CEO Barclay Rogers, is quoted as saying on its site, “It’s a solution that can be done anywhere, that will change the market, and more importantly, that will help save the planet.”

Ultimately, the startup believes its solution is scalable, in what the International Energy Agency calls a slow-progressing industry, capable of removing billions of tons of carbon. Currently, it says its cost is under $100/ton, which many industry experts point to as carbon removal’s holy grail.

This comes at a moment when the world’s largest carbon dioxide-capturing plant, bought into by Microsoft, Shopify, and Stripe costs about $600 a ton. Still, the difference between the two is that the big tech-backed plant takes carbon directly from the air, while Graphyte stops the decomposition of biomass and the re-emitting of naturally captured CO2.

The type of biomass the startup uses is residue from timber or agricultural production, thus its first commercial-scale deployment of Carbon Casting will take place at a Graphyte facility in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, which it says is at the intersection of both industries.

"This is a landmark agreement for both Graphyte and American Airlines," Rogers said in a statement. "It demonstrates the growing demand for affordable and scalable high-quality carbon removal credits and the ability of Carbon Casting technology to make a significant impact in the fight against climate change in the very near term."

The model relies on carbon credits, which, like offsets tied to tree planting and other carbon capture schemes, has had its fair share of missteps, like last year, when major European airlines were found to be misleading customers with carbon offset credits.

Therefore, the startup has its work cut out for it when it comes to factors like verification.

Nevertheless, according to Jill Blickstein, the Chief Sustainability Officer at American, the company is “focused on accelerating new low-carbon technologies to reduce aviation's climate impact.”

"Hard-to-abate industries like aviation will need high-quality, permanent, affordable and scalable carbon credits – including removals -- to achieve our emissions reduction goals,” she said in a statement, “We are excited to work with Graphyte to help them scale their important new technology."

On the other end of the aviation emission reductions spectrum, Virgin Atlantic landed the first fully sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) transatlantic flight on November 28, as well. Dubbed Flight100, the Boeing plane went from London to New York and as the airline giant sees it, not only are SAFs alternative to fossil-derived jet fuel, but it's “the only viable mid-term solution for decarbonizing long-haul aviation.”

Other options for flight decarbonization include electric flights and hybrid-electric flights that take advantage of hydrogen, however, many like Virgin maintain the idea that the latter options only work for smaller planes and short flights, rather than the large coast-to-coast commercial flights and shipment flights that make up the majority of aviation’s emissions. On top of that, the airline says that scaling those technologies is “decades away,” whereas SAFs can be used “today.”

Notably, Rolls Royce — which supplied the engines for the SAF Boeing – recently called off its bets on electric planes turning its attention to low-carbon jet fuel like SAFs.

Still, a handful of startups like ZeroAvia and Heart Aerospace are keen on getting electric and hybrid planes into the sky as early as 2024 and 2028 respectively.

Compared to fossil fuel jet fuel, SAFs have a 70% emissions reduction, but they represent less than 0.1% of global jet fuel volumes. According to Virgin, it’s not a technology problem, and Flight100 is a testament to that. Rather, the company hopes the flight will spur more government action in the United Kingdom where the airline is based.

"Today's historic flight, powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel, shows how we can both decarbonize transport and enable passengers to keep flying when and where they want,” UK Transport Secretary Mark Harper said on the flight. "This Government has backed today's flight to take-off and we will continue to support the UK's emerging SAF industry as it creates jobs, grows the economy and gets us to Jet Zero."

If goals to create a UK SAF industry weren’t enough, the airline also hopes the low carbon fuels can help the sector reach its 10% SAF by 2030 target, and the company’s own net zero by 2050 target.

“Flight100 proves that Sustainable Aviation Fuel can be used as a safe, drop-in replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel and it's the only viable solution for decarbonizing long-haul aviation. It's taken radical collaboration to get here and we're proud to have reached this important milestone, but we need to push further,” Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic’s CEO said in a statement.

“There is simply not enough SAF and it's clear that in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment,” he added,” This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place. Flight100 proves that if you make it, we'll fly it."

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