Could electric planes be the answer to a greener future?

The battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is gaining momentum – with pressure on businesses to play their part coming from both shareholders and customers alike.

Reaching the net zero carbon target that the UK, the EU and other countries, including Chile and New Zealand, are aiming to achieve by 2050, will be easier for some sectors than others.

It is relatively easy, as Shell’s chief executive Ben van Beurden told Sky News last week, for a sector such as accountancy to reach a net zero carbon position.

For other sectors, such as aviation, it will be much more difficult.

Yet the aviation sector is taking its obligations seriously.

A letter was circulated at the Paris airshow today, signed by the chief technology officers of seven of the world’s major aviation manufacturers – Airbus, Boeing, Dassault Aviation, GE, Rolls-Royce, Safran and United Technologies – in which they said they were “committed to driving the sustainability of aviation”.

The seven acknowledged that, at present, aviation accounts for 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions and highlighted the targets the industry has already set itself.

These include reducing CO2 emissions by 2050 to half the level that they were in 2005 and to limit the growth of net CO2 emissions by 2020.

They added: “We are on target to meet those near-term commitments….[we] are now each working at an unprecedented level to ensure the industry meets these aggressive and necessary commitments.”

Essentially, the group is working on three technological areas that they hope will make aviation sustainable: continuing to develop aircraft and engines that are more fuel efficient and produce less carbon dioxide; supporting the commercialisation of sustainable alternative aviation fuels and developing new propulsion technology.

To that end, one of the seven – Rolls-Royce – today announced a development in the latter area, announcing it has agreed to buy the electric and hybrid-electric aerospace propulsion business of the German industrial giant Siemens.

Rob Watson, director of Rolls-Royce Electrical, told Sky News it was a “wonderful opportunity”.

He said: “We have 100 years of history around aviation excellence and we’re delighted to team up with Siemens and go forward to break new barriers.

“Battery technology has some way to go, fuel cells present opportunities, but what’s important is that we have world class businesses looking at this technology, demonstrating the capability [of it] and; learning so that we can take the industry forward.”

Mr Watson said that there were already electric aircraft flying today.

He said that, early next year, Rolls-Royce hoped to make its first attempt on the world electric air speed record with an aircraft it has been developing in Gloucestershire with the electric motor supplier YASA and the battery specialist Electroflight.

He added: “We’re certainly hoping to get well above 300mph.

“It’s really a question of how well we can advance our engineering over the next six months but we’re going to give it a good go.

“We think this will bring some of the excitement into electrification and demonstrate the capability that this technology can bring.”

There are certainly a lot of potential obstacles in the way of developing aircraft that can fly for long distances using electric engines.

One is the sheer weight of the batteries and the fact that unlike kerosene, which burns off during a flight, they weigh the same throughout the journey.

Mr Watson said: “It’s certainly true that we are looking at ways to introduce energy storage systems into aircraft, and there are some challenges around it, but there are electric aircraft flying today.

“So the battery technology is there – it’s just a question as to how well it can scale to larger aircraft over time.”

He said he accepted that there is a greater risk of electrical fires when using higher voltages at the thinner atmospheres at which aircraft fly.

Mr Watson went on: “There are certainly challenges around electrical technology but we’re very focused, as you’d expect, on safety and the safe certification of our products.

“So we devote a huge amount of our attention to making sure that before we fly something we’re certain that it’s safe and is in line with the regulations set by the authorities.

“So there are challenges, but we are confident of overcoming them.”

He said that, in the foreseeable future, pure electric, or all-electric, propulsion would power smaller aircraft while larger aircraft would rely upon hybrid electric solutions combining electrification with evolutions of the gas turbine.

The buzz phrase at Le Bourget, as it has been for a while in the sector, is the “third era of aviation” – the first beginning with the invention of the aircraft by the Wright brothers and the second beginning with the so-called Jet Age in the 1950s.

In their letter today, the seven said: “Aviation’s third era is enabled by advances in new architectures, advanced engine thermodynamic efficiencies, electric and hybrid-electric propulsion, digitisation, 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.”

In short, what the aviation sector is looking to achieve represents nothing short of a revolution, particularly given some of the targets being set now to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Yet there is no disputing the need to do it.

Travel is not going to die out.

If anything, it is going to expand, as the middle classes in countries like India and China continue to grow.

Nor will the need to transport goods around the world fall – at least not if, to use the example cited by Mr van Beurden last week, people continue to want to eat strawberries in the winter.

So making aviation more sustainable is essential.

That may sound daunting – and, to some, may imply a higher cost to air travel in years to come.

The seven companies that circulated the letter today, however, are viewing the move to more sustainable aviation not as a threat but as an opportunity.

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