Climate change is becoming an imminent threat to the planet and with the aviation industry contributing 2% to 3% of global greenhouse gas emissions, zero emission (ZE) commercial aircraft will become the new goal for innovative start-ups and industry leaders alike as ZE aircraft are almost carbon neutral and can greatly reduce the cost of flying.
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The UK government has identified the need to plan for new airport infrastructure to accommodate a cleaner, green form of air travel. Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps, announced on a visit to Expo 2020, in November 2021, that we could not rule out air travel altogether to combat carbon emissions and had to identify ways, to make travel possible but cleaner, green and sustainable.
“Transport is on the edge of huge change; a revolution is coming. It won’t be triggered by a single innovation, but something more complex and a whole range of technologies using electricity, hydrogen and big data to operate the way we travel.”
Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps
Rather than focus on how to prevent flying, stakeholders should be aligning their goals to make it more sustainable. The industry is now at a critical juncture and needs to pave the way for net-zero carbon aviation by 2050 – the goal set by many governments and environmental groups. With almost US$1.5 trillion expected to be spent on global airport infrastructure development by 2030 according to the IATA, the scope for change is immense.
The UK is taking the lead in developing green aircraft solutions. In June last year, the UK Government announced the creation of the Jet Zero Council – a partnership between industry and government with the aim of delivering zero emission transatlantic flight within a generation, driving the ambitious delivery of innovative technologies and innovative ways to cut aviation emissions.
Similarly, the Aerospace Technology Insititute (ATI) launched FlyZero, which sets out to realise zero-carbon emission air travel by the end of the decade. A team from across UK industry is conducting a detailed and holistic study of the design challenges, manufacturing demands, operational requirements, and market opportunity of potential zero-carbon emission aircraft concepts.
Connected Places Catapult is also investing in sustainable aviation. We are delivering the Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure (ZEFI) programme in collaboration with the Department for Transport. We are bringing together government, industry, and academia to better understand the infrastructure changes required at airports and airfields to prepare for hydrogen-powered and battery electric aircraft. These initiatives are taking the lead in the UK, and more widely, we are also collaborating with our international partners to ensure global solutions to a global challenge.
Looking internationally, many countries have also been laying the groundwork for how zero emission aviation might look, with research and development projects spanning multiple areas of insight already taking shape. We explore some of these initiatives below.
Hydrogen powered flights
The development of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), hydrogen and electric technologies have transformed the realms of possibility and presented a potential new path towards a zero-carbon future.
In France, aircraft manufacturer Airbus, industrial gases company Air Liquide and Vinci Airports have partnered to create a hydrogen distribution hub at Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport. The airport is Vinci’s centre of excellence for innovation and was selected to pilot a project which will span three phases, including the opening of a hydrogen gas distribution station to supply ground vehicles, building the infrastructure for liquid hydrogen to refuel hydrogen aircraft, as well as for storage and mass distribution. This project is expected to be completed by the early 2030’s. Airbus, Air Liquide, and Vinci also plan to study the possibility of installing similar facilities throughout Vinci’s European airport network.
Similarly, in Germany, the City of Hamburg is funding the construction of a hydrogen tank demonstrator, in which DLR is working together with Lufthansa Technik, ZAL and Hamburg Airport to research liquid hydrogen aircraft maintenance processes and ground infrastructure.
Sustainable aviation fuels
During COP26, a coalition of world leaders agreed to promote the development and deployment of SAF that reduce life-cycle emissions. The fuel, which is produced from sustainable feedstocks, may result in an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions over its lifecycle when compared to traditional fossil jet fuel. To date, over 370,000 flights have taken to the skies using SAF since 2016, and 100 million litres of the fuel was produced in 2021.
In the US, Rolls Royce are one of the leading innovators in the SAF field, undertaking a 100 percent sustainably fuelled test flight in October 2021. Also, in December that year, United Airlines became the world’s first airline to operate a passenger flight with one engine running on 100 percent SAF when it flew a Boeing 737 MAX 8 from Chicago to Washington DC.
Electric aircraft will increase accessibility across nations, particularly in outlying regions, where today it is too expensive to maintain a well-functioning transport infrastructure. It is expected that electric aircraft will more than halve the operating costs compared to conventional combustion engine flights. Primarily, because of their lower maintenance and energy costs, electric aircraft will have a long-term cost advantage on short regional routes with a limited passenger base.
This is reflected in the increasing number of projects globally. These include:
- In March 2021, engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce and aircraft designer Tecnam have teamed up with Norwegian regional airline Widerøe to deploy an all-electric passenger aircraft by 2026. The electric aircraft called P-Volt will seat nine people.
- Last year, US-company Ampaire demonstrated their electric ‘EEL’ technology aircraft, a modified six-seat Cessna 337 Skymaster, with a battery-powered electric motor at the front and conventional combustion engine at the rear, enabling a reduction in emissions and operating costs by as much as 30%. Ampaire is currently developing hybrid electric power train upgrades for 9- to 19-seat regional aircraft, including the Cessna Grand Caravan and Twin Otter.
- In Germany, Munich Airport International (MAI) has established a partnership with UK company Urban Air Port to develop ground infrastructure and airport operations that can enable the vertical take-off and landing of electric air taxis.
It is anticipated that programmes such as FlyZero, ZEFI, plus the overseas initiatives will accelerate the development of ZE aircraft and supporting infrastructure and services globally. We forecast that this new innovative technology will account for a significant share of the aviation market and be a significant driver in the race to reduce aviation global greenhouse gas emissions.
The Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure (ZEFI) programme, led by Connected Places Catapult in collaboration with the Department for Transport, is supporting the aviation industry to prepare airports and airfields for hydrogen-powered and battery electric aircraft. This preparation work will require input from a wide range of industries, including other zero emission transport modes, and the energy sector.
Throughout the ZEFI programme, Connected Places Catapult has been bringing together the aviation, transport and energy industries, alongside government and academia, to understand the opportunities and challenges associated with zero emission flight infrastructure. Through research, workshops, and conversations with stakeholders, we have built up an Operational Concept for how new hydrogen and electric infrastructure may be implemented at airports and airfields to provide the necessary energy for aircraft. These concepts have been laid out alongside each other, and the existing fuelling system, to highlight the similarities and differences between them. Each airport or airfield will have a subset of the technologies shown, depending on the aircraft and routes supported.
It is important to note that new zero emission flight infrastructure will not, in most cases, replace existing fuelling systems. This is because a significant proportion of flights (particularly long-haul) will transition to Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) rather than electric or hydrogen propulsion. SAF is a ‘drop-in’ replacement for jet fuel, so minimal infrastructure or aircraft changes will be needed for its use. In fact, one of the challenges for the future will be the need for multiple fuelling and charging infrastructures to exist in parallel at airport and airfields.
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