As the aviation industry begins to wake from its slumber in a post Covid-19 landscape, many of us have wondered what the future holds for new aircraft technologies. How will the leading OEMs and their respective stakeholders address commitment to a carbon neutral aviation industry by 2050? In recent years, development of battery-powered aircraft concepts has continued, various new start up ventures exploring this propulsion technology, its possible applications and the regulatory hurdles and infrastructure challenges battery-powered aircraft face. There have been no concrete commitments to purely electric aircraft by the leading OEMs owing to the energy density (or lack thereof) vs weight penalties inherent in flying intercontinental routes. This, however, doesn’t mean there isn’t a place in the market for electric propulsion; it has great potential for short regional flights with smaller capacity cabins operating out of airports and aerodromes that would typically not accept commercial traffic.
Following Airbus’ announcement in September, it is evident electric propulsion is not a focus in their forthcoming product line. In its current guise at least, therefore, it’s clear electric propulsion does not meet the industry’s demands on traditional routes. Airbus has instead committed to both hydrogen and synthetic fuels as primary sources of power for the next generation of commercial aircraft by announcing three conceptual designs codenamed ‘ZEROe’. These concepts vary in their platform design, propulsion styles and mission types, both the Turbofan and Blended-wing Body (BWB) designs taking clear cues from previous Airbus projects such as the Airbus ‘BLADE’ laminar flow wing demonstrator and Airbus MAVERIC BWB.
Is Hydrogen propulsion the ‘silver bullet’ for which the aviation industry has been searching? If the technology can be harnessed, hydrogen propulsion will make serious inroads into reducing direct emissions from jet and gas turbine engines. However, sweeping changes to airport infrastructures will be required along with new fuel production facilities able to meet the demand for fuel supply. This will require a paradigm shift from traditional refuelling and supply networks to a hydrogen-centric supply chain which could potentially take longer to mature than the aircraft themselves. This would certainly result in a drastic reduction in the variety of routes these aircraft are able to fly, limiting operators to specific hubs and thereby restricting their ability to be flexible in the new routes they service with relative ease compared to traditional aircraft propulsion technologies.
In the short term, the industry will not see any sweeping changes in its new aircraft offerings. Instead, further developments will be seen in the use and certification of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). Most recently, Rolls-Royce announced ground tests on next-generation engine technology which aim to demonstrate their current engine offerings can operate on 100% SAF as a full ‘drop-in’ option. Currently, SAFs are certified only for blends of up to 50% with conventional Jet-A. Over recent months, IBA has also seen a significant increase in commitments to offtake agreements from operators such as Delta Airlines which has contracted to buy 10 million gallons of SAF from producer Gevo. Further SAF agreements have been reached between Neste, one of the largest SAF producers in the world, and Alaskan Airlines, JetBlue and American Airlines on flights operating from San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
Using unblended SAF can reduce net CO2 lifecycle emissions by more than 75% compared with conventional jet fuel. However, it is critical we understand the importance of the Life Cycle Emissions Value (LSf) when calculating any meaningful reduction in CO2 as it is not based upon pure exhaust emissions but rather on emissions from production to combustion. Therefore, the reduction of CO2 emissions is reliant on a variety of factors such as the feedstock used, how the feedstock was produced and what type of fuel-conversion process is being employed. These combined factors among many others are used to calculate a fuel’s LSf.
Typically, 20,000 metric tonnes of Jet-A/A1 would produce 63,000 tonnes of CO2, whereas alcohol-based SAF from forestry residues may produce as little as 16,847 tonnes, representing a 73% decrease. The graph below shows globally available CORSIA Eligible Fuels (CEFs) and their representative emissions reductions.
Source: ICAO, IBA
As an industry, we must continue to be pragmatic and have an understanding of the realities of SAF and its relative immaturity in the marketplace. For SAF to have any meaningful impact on CO2 reduction, the production rate will have to rapidly increase in order to meet the global aviation industry’s fuel requirements. Currently, Neste has an annual SAF capacity of 100,000 tonnes for the aviation market which, compared with annual global jet fuel consumption of 297 million tonnes per year, pales into insignificance. According to projections carried out by IBA, the global SAF annual production rate will reach 30 million tonnes by 2035 which is enough to supply circa 7% of the global fleet. This assumes a global compound annual growth rate of 3.7% in passenger journeys over the next 25 years and an average annual efficiency improvement in aircraft design of 1.5%.
Over the next few decades, the industry will experience a shift towards a cleaner, carbon neutral future. However, there are substantial challenges in scaling up the technologies to meet the needs of our globalised industry. There will be a significant blend of new technologies in propulsion and energy supply that will have to be supported in parallel with high quality carbon offsetting schemes if the industry is to meet its targets.
If you have any further questions please get in touch, Tim Boon
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