Will Virgin Galactic Suffer More Delays Due to Richard Branson’s Environmental Efforts?

Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)
Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)

The B Team, a group of high-level business leaders co-founded by Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson that’s committed “People Planet Profit”, has issued a call for “world leaders to commit to a global goal of net-zero greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions by 2050 – and urged business leaders to match this ambition by committing to bold long-term targets.”

In a Feb. 5 press release, Sir Richard said, “Taking bold action on climate change simply makes good business sense. It’s also the right thing to do for people and the planet. Setting a net-zero GHG emissions target by 2050 will drive innovation, grow jobs, build prosperity and secure a better world for what will soon be 9 billion people. Why would we wait any longer to do that? It’s time for all of us to join forces and drive the transition to a thriving net-zero GHG emissions economy by 2050.”

Bold words. But, I have to wonder what would happen to Virgin Galactic if Branson actually took action on them.

About the time the B Team was issuing its bold challenge, I saw a video of a SpaceShipTwo engine test here in Mojave.  A dark black plume of smoke rose over the desert as the rocket engine roared.

I assumed it was another test of the rubber hybrid engine, which I had heard Virgin was still working on. No, I was told, it was a hot fire of the nylon-nitrous oxide motor Virgin Galactic had switched to last May due to its better performance. Engineers had added carbon black to the engine to improve its performance.

Carbon black
Carbon black

Now what, exactly, is carbon black? Wikipedia describes it as follows:

Carbon black (subtypes are acetylene black, channel black, furnace black, lamp black and thermal black) is a material produced by the incomplete combustion of heavy petroleum products such as FCC tar, coal tar, ethylene cracking tar, and a small amount from vegetable oil….Carbon black is mainly used as a reinforcing filler in tires and other rubber products. In plastics, paints, and inks carbon black is used as a color pigment.

The current International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluation is that, “Carbon black is possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)”. Short-term exposure to high concentrations of carbon black dust may produce discomfort to the upper respiratory tract, through mechanical irritation.

 So, they’re burning leftover tar particulate in the engine. It might cause cancer. And they’re testing it right here in Mojave.

That’s just great. That’ll get us to net-zero GHG emissions. Full speed reverse.

But, there’s more.  In a blog post titled, “Towards zero carbon and beyond,” Branson somehow connects Virgin Galactic to the goal of carbon reduction and removal.

We’re currently experiencing a Catch-22 when it comes to carbon removal. Carbon removal isn’t prominently part of the discussion because of the many uncertainties within the field spurred by a lack of research on the subject; however, unless research can move forward, the uncertainties won’t reduce.

To fund tomorrow’s breakthroughs, we need entrepreneurial ventures and research that focus on the long term, today. This is happening in the space sector right now. Private space ventures, like Virgin Galactic, are standing on the shoulders of the legacy of scientific discovery, ambitions of historic leaders and catalysts of innovation. Our technology itself is a product of SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari XPRIZE in 2004.

Ohh-kay. What the what?

If Sir Richard is really serious about reducing carbon emissions, he needs to abandon the hybrid motors they’re working on and go straight to a liquid bi-propellent engine using less polluting fuel. In fact, he would have done it years ago.

They could conceivably switch to the liquid engine they are developing for LauncherOne. That would likely mean junking the current SpaceShipTwo design (or at least making significant changes to it), and starting over again with flight tests.

Such a move would cost a significant amount of money, likely cause additional years of delay, and could end up putting Virgin Galactic out of business. For those reasons, I doubt it will happen.

It’s easier to talk about how taking bold action on climate change is good for business than it is to actually take those actions.

Update: Branson has published an op-ed on CNN with Unilever CEO (and fellow B Team member) Paul Polman discussing the great urgency to reduce carbon emissions.