What is your next project concerning sustainable development? — Emily Lau, Entrepreneur magazine reader, US

The aviation industry is facing a tough and exciting challenge: creating a new way of doing business that uses less energy, relies on renewable sources of energy and minimizes or eliminates harmful waste products. We especially need to develop a sustainable commercial alternative to jet fuel. Because while people can choose to buy hybrid and electric cars, buses and trucks instead of gasoline-powered vehicles, air travel doesn’t offer the same options. Whether you board a plane at Heathrow, JFK or Narita, it will always be filled with kerosene.

Photo: Bloomberg

Most people in the industry are aware that it is possible for planes to fly on renewable fuels. In February 2008, one of our Virgin Atlantic planes did a test flight from London to Amsterdam using a fuel that mixed 80% kerosene with 20% biofuel—a fuel that was derived from babassu oil and coconut oil, both harvested from trees on established plantations. Other airlines, including Air New Zealand, Continental Airlines, Japan Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Thomson Airways have completed similar tests as well. The challenge is to scale up production of the fuel and get airlines around the world to use it.

How do you tackle industry-changing innovation? It doesn’t happen overnight. We made a commitment to “green" business more than five years ago, deciding that this was an area of financial opportunity that could also be good for the planet, so we stayed in contact with innovative start-ups in this field and kept up with the latest developments. Around the same time, Virgin Atlantic pledged to make a 30% carbon reduction per passenger kilometre by 2020, and at about the same time we also committed to developing and sourcing sustainable, renewable fuels for our fleets of planes.

Over the past five years, I invested through Virgin, our Green Fund and personally in a number of such initiatives, including ethanol plants in the US and pioneering biofuel companies such as Gevo and Solazyme. Development is a long, complicated process, with many hurdles to be overcome: the need to find sustainable feed stocks, develop the high-performance fuel and then test and obtain certification for the fuel’s use in aviation engines.

But breakthroughs do happen sometimes, and earlier this month, we made an announcement about what I believe could be one of the biggest steps forward in my lifetime towards developing a scalable, low-carbon aviation fuel. We believe that a fuel we are developing with LanzaTech, a company based in New Zealand, could halve Virgin Atlantic’s carbon footprint. Put simply: We’ve entered the recycling business, turning much of the waste from chimney stacks into aviation fuel.

The revolutionary fuel production process recycles waste gases, including carbon dioxide, which would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere. We’re tackling the steel production industry first: we have a plan in place to capture waste gases from nearly two-thirds of the world’s steel mills and convert them into jet fuel.

In the meantime, our goal is to have many Virgin Atlantic planes running on the new low-carbon fuel within three years, starting with those flying Shanghai to London and Delhi to London routes, then expanding to the UK and around the globe.

For years, people have doubted the practicality of using sustainable fuels—it would be great to prove them wrong. Ultimately, we hope that other airlines will follow Virgin Atlantic’s example and the industry’s carbon footprint will be radically decreased.

Another of our efforts that looks promising is one based in Australia. Virgin Australia has signed a memorandum of understanding with Dynamotive Energy Systems and Renewable Oil to help develop a sustainable aviation biofuel. Our consortium plans to use an accelerated thermal decomposition technology to process mallee, a eucalyptus tree that is grown in many parts of Australia to help control salinity on farmland and that is harvested sustainably. A demonstration unit that will make biofuels for testing, certification and public trials is intended to be up and running next year and a commercial-scale plant could be operational as early as 2014.

It is vital that plans to develop a sustainable aviation biofuel are truly sustainable and bring wider benefits; in this case improving socio-economic conditions for the Australian farming community and helping the environment. We have pledged to develop jet fuel plant sources in a way that minimizes biodiversity impacts and doesn’t deplete food or water sources. We have also promised to never use high-conservation-value areas or native ecosystems for plant source development, and to reduce total lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.

I have written before about the need to find new ways of doing business, and at Virgin, our many small steps over the years —reaching out to people who had revolutionary ideas, developing our own and seeing how our companies could work together—are starting to turn into industry-changing innovation. If you are hoping to bring change to your industry, start building toward that future right now.

BY NYT Syndicate

©2011/Richard Branson

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at www.virgin.com/richard-branson/blog.

Your comments and queries on this column, which runs every week, are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

• • •

Keep up with latest news/ views on the livemint Facebook page

Follow livemint on Twitter for latest news / views / full coverage