Sir Richard Branson has raised the prospect of planes being made entirely from the so-called wonder material graphene within 10 years, as the airline industry battles a 50pc increase in fuel in the last 12 months, sparking a desperate need for ever lighter fleets.
The Virgin Atlantic president, who founded the airline in 1984, described the super-lightweight material as a ‘breakthrough technology’, which he said could help revolutionise the airline industry and transform its cost base.
Speaking in Seattle, where the British airline has just begun flying on a daily basis for the first time, Sir Richard said: “Graphene is even lighter [than carbon fibre], many times lighter and many times stronger.
Sir Richard Branson
“Hopefully graphene can be the planes of the future, if you go 10 years down the line. They would be massively lighter than the current planes, which again would make a difference on fuel burn.”
Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms forming a regular hexagonal pattern, and is extracted from graphite. It has a litany of uses and is said to be as light as a feather yet stronger than steel.
The entrepreneur likened the push for graphene planes to his previous encouragement of Airbus and Boeing to make planes from carbon fibre, a battle he eventually won. Boeing’s latest 787 Dreamliner planes, which Virgin is flying on the London Heathrow-Seattle route, are made from 50pc carbon fibre and other composite materials, as opposed to the traditional 100pc aluminium. As a result, they use 30pc less fuel than a standard alternative.
Sir Richard said the airline was still committed to reducing its carbon footprint through using cleaner fuels.
Virgin Atlantic is working with US-based clean fuels specialist Lanzatech on a biological process to convert carbon waste from manufacturing processes into ethanol, which in turn can be converted into jet fuel.
Although the product has yet to be scaled, Virgin bosses are hopeful it could revolutionise the way the fleet consumes fuel.
“If you take all the steel plants and all the aluminium plants around the world and take all the s*** that goes up the chimneys, and then you turn that into jet aviation fuel, something like 30-40pc could be powered that way,” he went on.
“The question is: are they going to be able to scale it up enough to really make a difference?”
His comments come a day after Virgin Atlantic chief executive Craig Kreeger admitted the airline was forecast to make a loss this year due to higher fuel costs, and lower revenues because of sterling’s weakness.
The airline made a £23m profit in 2016, up £500,000 on 2015.
Sir Richard owns a 51pc stake in Virgin Atlantic through his Virgin Group.