WizzAir reveals plan for world-first refinery in Essex which will turn faeces into jet fuel

Firefly chief executive James Hygate credit to: Firefly
Firefly chief executive James Hygate Credit: Firefly

Plans for the world's first commercial refinery for turning human waste into aeroplane fuel have been unveiled - raising hopes that it could point to a sustainable future for aviation.

Airline Wizz Air and biofuel company Firefly revealed the site for their waste-to-fuel compound will be built in Harwich in Essex, and could ultimately lead to the creation of hundreds of jobs for the area.

Last year, Wizz Air invested £5m into Firefly, which researches and develops sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and specialises in a process that converts sewage sludge into fuel.

Firefly chief executive James Hygate said the material being used - known as biosolids - are "kind of disgusting stuff" but "an amazing resource".

He went on: "We’re turning sewage into jet fuel.

"I can’t really think of many things that are cooler than that."

How does it work?

The process is one which converts sewage sludge - known as biosolids, but essentially human waste - into fuel.

In a process called hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL), Firefly takes the sludge and puts it into a high pressure reactor to separate it into two useful materials, known as biochar and bio-crude.

Biochar can be used as a fertiliser for the agriculture industry, and bio-crude can be refined into jet fuel.

SAF is made from sustainable sources meaning its production involves using about 70% less carbon than conventional jet fuel.

It can be used in a maximum blend of 50% with kerosene without the need for any modifications to aircraft engines.

However, it is currently several times more expensive to produce than conventional jet fuel.

Wizz Air invested £5 million into Firefly Green Fuels Credit: Wizz Air/Firefly

The new site, located near the existing Halterman Carless refinery in Refinery Road, will be built in phases.

The first phase will begin this year and is expected to be up and running by 2027. Phase two is expected to be complete by 2028/9.

Anglian Water has committed to providing biosolids – a product of its wastewater treatment process – to Firefly for the initial pilot SAF facility.

Paul Hilditch, the company’s chief operating officer, said: "There’s enough biosolids in the UK for more than 200,000 tonnes of SAF.

"That’s enough to satisfy about half of the mandated SAF demand in 2030.

"We’re not the only answer – we need the other routes to SAF – but this new route to SAF has the potential to move the needle, it has the potential to be a significant contribution to UK SAF supply.

"And not just the UK, of course. Anywhere in the world where there are people, there’s poo."

Firefly said it was in the process of obtaining regulatory approval for its system to be used to fuel aircraft.

Wizz Air also announced a new aspiration to power 10% of its flights with SAF by 2030.

Yvonne Moynihan of Wizz Air said: "Alongside fleet renewal and operational efficiency, sustainable aviation fuel plays a crucial role in reducing carbon emissions from aviation.

"Our investment in Firefly, which has the potential to reduce our lifecycle emissions by 100,000 tonnes CO2 equivalent per year, underscores our commitment to mainstream the use of SAF in our operations by 2030.

"However, achieving our aspiration requires a significant ramp-up of SAF production and deployment.

"Therefore, we call on policymakers to address barriers to SAF deployment at scale by incentivising production, providing price support, and embracing additional sustainable feedstocks for biofuel production."

Under the government’s SAF mandate, at least 10% of the fuel used by airlines in the UK must be made from sustainable feedstocks by 2030.

Without UK SAF production, airlines are expected to have to rely heavily on imports to adhere to the mandate.

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know