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Virgin Atlantic flight on 100% sustainable fuel takes off for New York

Virgin Atlantic marked a milestone in its journey to become net zero by 2050. It was the first commercial carrier to complete a transatlantic flight on 100% sustainable aviation fuel.

All eyes are on Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Tuesday as it seeks to become the first commercial airline in the world to complete a transatlantic flight on 100% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Flight100, a Boeing 787 aircraft using Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, took off from London's Heathrow airport around 11:30 a.m. local time Tuesday and is expected to land in New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport by early afternoon. 

The goal of the non-commercial flight, which means there were no paying customers aboard, is to prove that SAF fuel is a safe replacement for fossil-derived jet fuel for long-haul flights, marking a significant milestone in the industry's journey to achieve net zero by 2050.

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The journey to this point consisted of radical collaboration between several industries for over a year. The airline also had to seek permission from several regulators in order to execute the test flight. 

Sustainable aviation fuel is already used to power jet engines but current fuel standards only allow for a 50% blend of sustainable aviation fuel with traditional jet fuel in commercial jet engines. 

To date, sustainable aviation fuel, produced using a range of sustainable feedstocks like cooking oil, is seen as the only viable solution to decarbonize flying until other technologies such as new electric and hydrogen-powered options come into play. Those options are decades away, Virgin said. 

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A flight powered by 100% SAF delivers a CO2 lifecycle emissions savings of up to 70%, according to Virgin, which is trying to achieve significant reductions in CO2 emissions in 2026, 2030 and 2040. 

The issue is that SAF is still hard to come by, representing less than 0.1% of global jet fuel volumes.

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CEO Shai Weiss has repeatedly warned that there is far more work to be done by industries and policymakers. 

"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," Weiss said in a statement ahead of the flight. "This will only happen when regulatory certainty and price support mechanisms, backed by government, are in place."

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