Aviation innovation 2020: reducing carbon emissions across industries
Despite sustained media attention on aviation’s contribution to climate change, the industry remains a hotbed for innovation. Investment in aviation promises to deliver sustainability improvements and technological advancements capable of cross-pollinating other industries. But, continued financial backing is needed to see the full benefits.
Electric and hybrid engines
Electric and hybrid engines are an obvious starting point when it comes to how to reduce aviation emissions. This isn’t a new idea, but efforts have gathered momentum in recent years. Efforts at Airbus are a good example.
Since 2010, Airbus has been developing electric and hybrid aircraft. After the automotive industry’s progress with electric engines in the mid-2010s, Airbus committed to fly the first electric propulsion system on an aircraft in 2020.
Airbus is partnered with Rolls-Royce who produces the engines. Paul Stein, Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer, explains: “This technology … isn’t just about another flying machine. It’s about the dawning of a whole new era in aviation”. Watch Stein speak further in this video.
In 2015, the Airbus E-Fan became the first twin-engine electric plane to cross the English Channel. Having already demonstrated viability with previous demonstrators, Airbus aims to use the technology on commercial 100-passenger aircraft within the 2030s.
Similar projects have received heavy investment, both at Airbus and other research and development centres. The University of Stuttgart, for instance, created a small, two-seater, electric plane. When commercialised, this technology will revolutionise the industry by drastically reducing carbon emissions and offering more efficient travel.
The E-Fan might have been the first twin-engine plane to cross the English Channel, but Australian engineering firm, MagniX, has taken this technology a step further. At the end of last year, their ePlane, operated by Harbour Air, was the world’s first commercial all-electric plane to take flight.
The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver seaplane took a fifteen-minute flight, powered by its 750 horsepower Magni500 propulsion system, marking the beginning of clean, commercial electric flights. With MagniX chief executive Roei Ganzarski saying “The [flight] range now is not where we’d love it to be, but it’s enough to start the revolution”.
There are promising signs biofuels, another solution that has been in use for some time, will be more widely used as a sustainable alternative to traditional aviation fuels. Producing lower emissions and sourced from carbon consuming crops, they will help reduce aviation’s emissions problems by up to 80%.
Since 2008, over 150,000 flights have used a combination of traditional and biofuels. For example, in 2018, Virgin Atlantic flew a commercial aircraft from Florida to the UK using sustainable jet fuel processed from recycled waste. The fuel is believed to have the potential to reduce emissions by 65%.
The initial attempts to use biofuels in aviation resulted in too much competition with food sources and overuse of water. But now there are several different biofuels currently being developed and used for aviation which use plant material such as jatropha, other biomass, alcohol and waste oils to create the jet fuel required.
By investing in innovation, the aviation industry has achieved some of the most significant reductions in transport emissions, however a growing negative perception of aviation is potentially threatening the continued investment needed for change to occur.
Technologies developed in aviation will inevitably have far reaching and positive impacts for other industries as they have done for the past hundred years. As an industry where the most significant operating cost is fuel, aviation has a lot to gain from continuously improving on fuel economy and improved sustainability. For aviation, driving sustainability is not a marketing trick, it’s a business survival imperative.
Perspective is important. Everyone, including major industry players like Airbus and Boeing, all agree that more needs to be done to tackle aviation’s current emissions profile. To do so requires industry stability and continuous and positive investment. If the current sentiment portrayed in some parts of the global media towards the industry continues then raising this investment will become more difficult.
We live in a global economy that is principally served by two transport mediums being sea and air. The vast majority of goods are transported by sea, which is undergoing its own transformation in emissions and sustainability, but the global commercial relationships underpinning this trade is dependent on professional’s ability to travel freely and frequently across the globe.
We need aviation to remain at the forefront of innovation and be able to bring new and beneficial technologies to a global community. So, let’s be certain that we give the sector the time and backing to do so.
Jerry is Director Global Business Development at Finance Technology Leverage (FTL). By financing exciting and challenging projects, FTL unlocks the potential of sustainable energy solutions. Contact us to learn about how we can help fund your innovation.