The entire aviation world has in the past year been rushing full speed ahead to convince the world that it is at least ‘doing something’ to cut its carbon emissions. A lot of the action has been taking place amid television coverage of fires in North America, floods in Europe, droughts in Africa and the COVID-19 pandemic of course, which, while its exact origins are unclear, is obviously the result of mankind moving into places once reserved for Mother Nature.
And while the public relations executives at aviation companies have been working overtime to spread the green message, the one caveat they all mention is that the companies won’t be carbon neutral until at least 2050. That is too late, according to the scientific community, which agrees that the world is heating up faster than previous models showed and the world will likely not avoid heating up either to or past the 2 degrees Celsius that will spur runaway climate change.
But at least aviation is doing something and that should be commended.
Recently, companies from Airbus to Rolls-Royce to Air New Zealand all announced new designs, a commitment to sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) or hydrogen, electric aircraft, and limiting single-use plastics.
Rolls-Royce electric Spirit of Innovation
Rolls-Royce announced on 15 September that its all-electric “Spirit of Innovation” aircraft took its first flight. The plane is powered by a 400kW (500+hp) electric powertrain with the most power-dense battery pack ever assembled for an aircraft. Warren East, CEO, Rolls-Royce, said: “The first flight of the Spirit of Innovation is a great achievement for the ACCEL team and Rolls-Royce. We are focused on producing the technology breakthroughs society needs to decarbonise transport across air, land, and sea, and capture the economic opportunity of the transition to net zero. This is not only about breaking a world record; the advanced battery and propulsion technology developed for this programme has exciting applications for the Urban Air Mobility market and can help make ‘jet zero’ a reality.”
In June, Rolls-Royce announced a pathway to net-zero carbon emissions – a year on from joining the UN Race to Zero campaign – and the ‘Spirit of Innovation’ is one way in which the company says it is helping decarbonise the critical parts of the global economy in which it operates. The company said it is committed to ensuring its new products will be “compatible” with net-zero operation by 2030 and all products will be compatible with net zero by 2050.
Several companies recently said they were joining the hydrogen game to cut carbon emissions, even though it is more than unlikely that hydrogen will play any kind of meaningful role in mainstream aviation due to the sea-change required to shift an entire industrial base to hydrogen and the trillions of dollars necessary to create so-called “green hydrogen”.
Ever since Airbus unveiled its zero-emission aircraft concepts back in 2020, saying then it hoped to have zero-emissions planes flying by 2035, hydrogen has been getting a lot of attention. The aviation world likes to think it’s a “new” concept, but a hydrogen-powered plane was flown by the former Soviet Union back in the 1980s. It wasn’t feasible then, and little has changed to make it feasible now, especially when you consider that, according to Pratt & Whitney experts, if you took all the hydrogen in the world today, the total amount would only power about 10 percent of the world’s commercial aircraft fleet.
And yet the public relations types keep telling us hydrogen is the “new thing”.
Air New Zealand and Airbus said on 16 September that they are forming a joint initiative to better understand the opportunities and challenges of flying zero-emission hydrogen aircraft in New Zealand. Under the MoU, Air New Zealand will analyse the impact hydrogen aircraft may have on its network, operations and infrastructure, while Airbus will provide hydrogen aircraft performance requirements and ground operations characteristics to support Air New Zealand to develop its decarbonisation roadmap.
Air New Zealand Chief Executive Officer Greg Foran says the MoU is a step toward understanding how hydrogen-powered aircraft could become a reality in New Zealand. “New Zealand has a unique opportunity to be a world leader in the adoption of zero emissions aircraft, given the country’s commitment to renewable energy which can be used to generate green hydrogen and our highly connected regional air network. This agreement brings us a step closer seeing low carbon solutions in place for our shorter domestic and regional flights in the next decade. At this stage, both hydrogen and battery electric aircraft are still on the table as potential options for our shorter domestic flights, along with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) for long haul operations. This research will help to inform future decision making as we work towards net zero emissions by 2050.” Foran added in a television interview that hydrogen-powered commuter aircraft could be in service by 2030 in New Zealand.
Airbus, Air Liquide and VINCI Airports also announced a partnership to promote the use of hydrogen and accelerate the decarbonisation of the aviation sector. The airport of Lyon-Saint Exupéry (France) will host the first installations as early as 2023. This partnership reflects the three groups’ shared ambition to combine their respective expertise to support the decarbonization of air travel. By 2030, the three partners will study the possibility of equipping VINCI Airports’ European airport network with the hydrogen production, storage and supply facilities needed for use on the ground and on-board aircraft.
Efficient designs & ATM
Airbus, Air France and DSNA, the French Air Navigation Service Provider (ANSP), have begun working towards the development of “most energy efficient flights”, following their inaugural demonstration flight from Paris to Toulouse Blagnac. The aircraft flew an optimised trajectory, marking the first of a series of trials planned during 2021 and 2022 within the framework of the Single European Sky ATM Research Joint Undertaking (SESARJU) “ALBATROSS” project. Launched in February 2021, ALBATROSS is a large-scale initiative of major European aviation stakeholder groups led by Airbus. It aims to demonstrate, through a series of gate-to-gate live demonstration flights across Europe, the feasibility of implementing most energy efficient flights in the short term, by combining several R&D technical and operational innovations.
“ALBATROSS” follows a holistic approach by covering all flight phases, directly involving all relevant stakeholder groups (such as airlines, ANSPs, network managers, airports and industry) and addressing both operational and technological aspects of aviation and Air Traffic Management (ATM). Many solutions will be put into practice during the flight demonstrations, from new precision approach procedures to continuous climb and descent, a more dynamic management of necessary airspace constraints, sustainable taxiing and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) usage.
Airbus also announced that its “Wing of Tomorrow”, a major research and technology programme, has reached a key milestone with the assembly of its first full-size wing prototype. The Wing of Tomorrow programme will not only test the latest composite materials and new technologies in aerodynamics and wing architecture but, importantly, explore how wing manufacturing and industrialisation can be improved to meet future demand as the sector emerges from the pandemic. Three full-size prototype wings will be manufactured in total: one will be used to understand systems integration; a second will be structurally tested to compare against computer modelling, while a third will be assembled to test scaling-up production and compare against industrial modelling.
Sabine Klauke, Airbus chief technical officer, said: “Wing of Tomorrow, a crucial part of Airbus’ R&T portfolio, will help us assess the industrial feasibility of future wing production. High-performing wing technology is one of several solutions – alongside sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen – we can implement to contribute to aviation’s decarbonisation ambition. Wing of Tomorrow is also an example of how large-scale industry collaboration will be critical to achieving our sector’s agenda for a more sustainable future.”
Airbus also announced it has launched an extra-performing wing demonstrator project focused on accelerating and validating technologies that will improve and optimise wing aerodynamics and performance for any future aircraft. This scaled demonstrator will integrate and fly breakthrough wing technologies on a Cessna Citation VII business jet platform in representative flight conditions. The applications of the extra-performing wing would be compatible with any propulsion solution and aircraft configuration and would reduce CO2 emissions, contributing greatly to Airbus’ decarbonisation roadmap.
Similar to how an eagle soars, adapting the shape, span and surface of its wings and feathers, this demonstrator allows for increased flight efficiency. Various technology bricks will be investigated to enable the active control of the wing, including: gust sensors, pop-up spoilers or plates that are rapidly deflected perpendicular to airflow, multifunctional trailing edges that dynamically change wing surface in flight and a semi-aeroelastic hinge.
The demonstrator is hosted within Airbus UpNext, a wholly-owned Airbus subsidiary created to give future technologies a development fast-track by building demonstrators at speed and scale, in order to evaluate, mature and validate potential new products and services that encompass radical technological breakthroughs.
SAF & plastic
Airbus, which is keeping its PR executives busy, also announced it will start delivering all aircraft from its US manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) later this year. Airbus has reached an agreement with Signature Flight Support to supply SAF to its Mobile facility. No later than November 2021, all aircraft delivered to customers will be powered by a blend of SAF and conventional jet fuel. Signature Flight Support is working in partnership with World Energy to provide the US-sourced SAF to Airbus.
“Delivering our Mobile-produced aircraft with SAF is an important, iterative step toward solving the carbon challenge,” said Jeff Knittel, chairman and CEO of Airbus Americas, Inc. “SAF is a positive contributor to enhanced sustainability in aviation since it enables up to an 80 percent reduction of CO2 across the fuel lifecycle. We are committed to making sustainable fuels an everyday reality with use on an increasingly larger scale, and this announcement is further evidence of that.”
Air New Zealand announced it was switching out single-use plastic by using new eco-serviceware in the airline’s international economy cabin in a new trial to reduce plastic and carbon emissions. The airline recently tested two different casserole dish materials, bagasse and rotable plastic, along with a birchwood cutlery alternative on four of its Rarotonga flights. Switching to a more sustainable serviceware option has the potential to remove around 28 million single-use plastic dishes and knives, forks and spoons from inflight every year.
Air New Zealand Chief Customer and Sales Officer Leanne Geraghty says now is the right time to be looking at the materials the airline uses inflight. “The serviceware flying today was designed more than a decade ago. With an acute awareness of the impacts of plastic pollution, we’re delivering serviceware that is designed for the culinary experiences of the future and reduces vast amounts of single-use plastic from our operation. We’re on a journey to reduce the impact of our serviceware on the environment by moving away from single-use plastics and trialling more sustainable serviceware across some of our international flights.”