British synthetic fuel company Zero Petroleum has made history after joining forces with the Royal Air Force (RAF) to complete the world’s first flight using 100% net-zero synthetic fuel.

Taking place on 2nd November 2021 at Cotswold Airport, the project also saw Guinness World Records award the Ikarus C42 aircraft involved in the flight ‘First aircraft powered by synthetic fuel’.

Founded by Formula One engineering icon Paddy Lowe and Professor Nilay Shah OBE, Head of Chemical Engineering at Imperial College London, Zero Petroleum uses Direct FT, a variant of Fischer-Tropsch technology to produce the fuel reliably and securely. 

Close-up of the aircraft.

Close-up of the aircraft.

Source: Zero Petroleum.

The process involves combining renewably derived hydrogen with captured carbon dioxide (CO2) to create a substitute to fossil-based aviation fuel, known as ‘drop-in’ fuel. 

In addition to aiding Zero Petroleum in its goal to become the world leader in synthetic fuels technology and production, the flight is considered the first step in a joint programme to decarbonise the RAF. 

Stating that he is determined to tackle climate change ‘head on’, Sir Mike Wigston, Air Chief Marshal, Chief of the Air Staff, added, “I am delighted at the award of this world record and to see the Royal Air Force yet again at the leading edge of innovation and technology, as we have been throughout our history.” 

The technology involved in the project has impressive pedigree, with Lowe’s expertise contributing to a total of 158 race wins and 12 World Championships in Formula One and Shah – regarded as a world-leading chemical engineering authority – having been awarded an OBE for services to the decarbonisation of the UK economy last year. 

“…we have together made a significant mark in the history of powered aviation which started with the Wright brothers just 118 years ago.”

Earlier this year, Lowe spoke to gasworld’s Global Managing Editor Rob Cockerill about the impact that net-zero sustainable fuels could have on constructing a ‘fully circular’ and carbon-neutral supply at scale. 

“We can create petroleum in a circular manner, rather than in a linear manner drawn from finite reserves, through synthesis,” explained Lowe. “Creating synthetic petroleum will complete the circle.” 

When asked about the possibility of utilising a UK-produced synthetic fuel for daily energy needs, Lowe replied, “I think it will take off, I think it will capture the imagination of influencers and decision-makers.” 

Recognising potential challenges such as cost and scaling-up, he added, “There are new challenges, because the inputs are very expensive, and we are refining the process to make it much more efficient and with higher yields. There is also the challenge of working at smaller scales, and within dynamic contexts.” 

“I think it’s a very necessary fuel and, as I earlier explained, I see electrification, hydrogen and hydrocarbon fuels as the three channels for the energy transition.”

Such synthetic fuels are seen as a way to replace fossil fuels without having to adapt engine design or distribution infrastructure, in addition to providing energy to intensive sectors which cannot be supplemented by electrification alone. 

Lowe showcasing a sample of Zero Petroleum's synthetic fuel.

Lowe showcasing a sample of Zero Petroleum’s synthetic fuel.

Commenting on the flight, named Project MARTIN, Lowe said, “This unique project with the RAF demonstrates the validity of our synthetic fuel and the potential it has to eliminate fossil CO2 emissions from a number of difficult but critical sectors, including transport which currently accounts for 23% of the global total.” 

He also revealed that Zero Petroleum’s high-grade aviation gasoline ZERO SynAvGas was developed in only five months. 

“Synthetic fuel allows the world to rethink its relationship with petroleum which can now be man-made in significant volumes within a carbon neutral process. This revolution will power the energy transition by creating a fully circular fuel supply at scale.” 

“I could not be more excited as I believe we have together made a significant mark in the history of powered aviation which started with the Wright brothers just 118 years ago,” he added. 

To see completion of the project, Zero Petroleum and its technology partner IGTL Technology build a production plant in Peterhead, UK, before being positioned at Billia Croo, Orkney, for fuel manufacturing operations during September and October 2021.

The full webinar, ’In conversation with Paddy Lowe, Zero Petroleum’, can be viewed on demand here.