Industry heavyweights join forces on climate change in aviation’s “third era”

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June 18, 2019
Third age climate
The E-Fan X hybrid-electric demonstrator. Image: Airbus

It’s somewhat grandly called the “third era” of aviation and it’s part of a shared vision between seven of the world’s major manufacturers to tackle climate change.

The chief technology officers of Boeing, Airbus, Safran, GE Aviation, Roll-Royce, UTC and Dassault pledged at the Paris Air Show to cooperate to drive sustainability in the industry.

They would do this, they said, by continuing to develop aircraft and engine design technology “in a relentless pursuit of improvements in fuel efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions”.

They would also support the commercialization of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), building on the 185,000 commercial flights that have used an SAF/Kerosene blend to prove the concept.

READ: United eco-flight showcases airline responses to climate change.

And they would develop radically new aircraft and propulsion technology as well as accelerate technologies that would enable the third generation of aviation.

“Aviation is at the dawn of its third major era, building on the foundation laid by the Wright brothers and the innovators of the jet age in the 1950s,’’ the executives said in a joint statement.

“Aviation’s third era is enabled by advances in new architectures, advanced engine thermodynamic efficiencies, electric and hybrid-electric propulsion, digitization, artificial intelligence, materials and manufacturing.

“Larger aircraft will begin to benefit from novel designs that will further improve efficiency through management of aircraft drag and distributing propulsion in new ways. New materials will enable lighter aircraft, further improving efficiency.

“We are excited by this third generation of aviation and, even though all of the represented companies have different approaches, we are all driven by the certainty of its contribution to the role of aviation in a sustainable future.

“We believe aviation is entering its most exciting era since the dawn of the jet age. This third era promises a transformative positive impact on lives around the globe — and we stand ready to make it a reality.”

Third age climate
The EcoPulse demonstrator being developed by Airbus, Safran and Daher uses a wing-mounted distributed hybrid propulsion system. Image; MIP for Daher.

The statement comes as there is palpable angst in the industry about a potential backlash over climate change, particularly among the young.

“Flight shaming”  and how the industry could better get across the message about what it was doing to tackle climate change were hot topics at the recent annual meeting of airline bosses hosted by  International Air Transport Association.

It has been more than a decade since the climate became a heated topic of discussion at IATA and the industry set its goal to reduce CO2 emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050 and to have carbon-neutral growth from 2020.

As the CTOs noted, however, it isn’t just airlines that need to come to the party: air traffic management and new ways of routing aircraft to minimize fuel also have a significant role to play as do governments.

Aircraft and engine makers have done their bit for the last 40 years with technology that has reduced C02 emissions by a yearly average of more than one percent per passenger mile.

While this was mainly been a result of airlines wanting to reduce costs, it has also had the happy effect of offsetting the impact of the industry’s phenomenal growth on the planet.

The CTO’s noted this was the result “of significant R&D investments in materials, aerodynamic efficiency, digital design and manufacturing methods, turbomachinery developments and aircraft systems optimization.”

But the conventional approach is getting harder.

“Targets set by the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe call for a 75 percent reduction in CO2, a 90 percent drop in NOX and a 65 percent decrease in noise by 2050, compared with year 2000 levels,’’ the CTOs said.

“To help achieve these aggressive goals, global agreements reached through ICAO call for a fuel-efficiency performance standard to be part of the certification process applied to every airplane.”

“We remain committed to improving existing aircraft and engine designs to continue the trajectory of improving efficiency as much as possible.

“Concurrently, we note the tremendous technological challenges ahead of us and the likely need to include more radical ‘third generation’ approaches.”

Work is already underway on electric and hybrid electric propulsion and this might be applied to short-haul aircraft in the coming years.

READ: Companies combine to build distributed propulsion plane.

Rolls-Royce, for example, announced at the air show that had agreed to acquire Siemens eAircraft business in a move it said would accelerate its electrification strategy.

The eAircraft business in Germany and Hungary, employs around 180 specialist electrical designers and engineers who have been developing a range of all-electric and hybrid electric propulsion solutions.

This includes  Rolls’ E-Fan X demonstrator project aimed at developing technology to power regional aircraft with hybrid-electric propulsion that combines a gas turbine with electric engines and propellers.

But the hard fact is many planes will need liquid fuels for decades to come.

Sustainable aviation fuels, originally known as biofuels, which provide can provide 80 percent life-cycle savings on CO2 emissions are seen as key to a more environmentally friendly industry but they are still a long way from widespread distribution.

United eco-flight airline climate
United is among the airlines already using biofuel blends. Photo: United

The CTOs noted that five pathways for production of SAFs have already been approved for use, with the commercial-scale production of one of those pathways already in place.

“ We believe that accelerating production scale-up of all commercially viable pathways, while simultaneously developing additional lower cost pathways, is the key to success,’’ they said.

“This work is already underway at research institutions and within companies in various industrial sectors. What is needed is an expansion of government support for technology development, production facility investment, and fuel production incentives around the world.”

While that happens, the industry is introducing a global carbon offset scheme known as CORSIA that is to be implemented in phases from 2021, with some aspects beginning this year.

CORSIA is expected to provide more than $US40 billion for climate projects offsetting at least 2.5 billion tonnes of C02 over 15 years.

The industry hopes this combination of approaches will allow it to remain on track to meet its targets and the CTOs were optimistic

“The future of aviation is bright,’’ they said.

“ Yet, in addition to the significant efforts our sector is undertaking, we also depend on the coordinated support from policymakers, regulators and governments working together to achieve these goals.

“There must be additional public and private commitment to establish a sound regulatory foundation to address the novel issues associated with emerging aviation technologies and to provide the necessary economic support for widespread SAFs commercialization.

“We envision broader, deeper and ongoing coordination through ICAO to facilitate unified approaches to regulation with established national and global regulatory and standards-setting bodies.”