CTOs Optimistic on Net-zero 2050 Target for Aviation

 - July 22, 2020, 12:09 PM

As the UK forms the Jet Zero Council and affirms its commitment net-zero carbon emissions for UK aviation and aerospace by 2050, a panel of chief technology officers from major aerospace companies discussed how to reach those goals during a Wednesday FIA Connect conference. 

“We’ve been taking the journey to net-zero seriously for a number of months,” said Rolls-Royce CTO Paul Stein during the CTO Summit session. But what is interesting is that the industry is accelerating these plans instead of “picking back up where we were,” he explained, adding that he is working closely with other companies’ CTOs to help reach those targets.

“SAF [sustainable aviation fuel] is one of biggest games in town for decarbonizing aviation,” he said. “Where CO2 is emitted today is two-thirds of all fuel burn is on journeys longer than 1,000 miles, pre-Covid. Most next-generation technologies for beyond 600 to 1,000 miles run out of steam. We don’t see a way of using third-generation technology for those routes. So we need SAF that doesn’t involve fossil fuel-based production. The lifecycle impact is the same as hydrogen if we don’t use fossil fuel to make SAF.”

Eventually, the plan is to push today’s allowance of 50 percent SAF blended with jet fuel to 100 percent SAF. “If we had enough SAF today at the right price, aviation wouldn’t have a problem," said Stein. "If we set a target of 100 percent decarbonization by 2050, assuming no offsetting, we’ll need 500 million tonnes of SAF by 2050. It’s achievable, but it’s a massive industrial undertaking.” Still, SAF will have to cost less to encourage operators to use it.

Rolls-Royce, meanwhile, is working on more efficient engines, and its massive UltraFan project will lower fuel burn by 10 percent, especially important for long-range airliners. For shorter-range aircraft, novel propulsion methods are key, such as pure electric, hybrid-electric, and hydrogen power. “Eventually some of those will work up into larger aircraft,” he said.

Airbus CTO Grazia Vittadini echoed Stein’s sentiments. Even though, she said, “Air travel is facing its biggest depression in history...it’s critical that technology and design innovations respond to customer and societal needs. We’ll only be successful in decarbonization if we work together. And the pressure [to do so] will rise even more when we get out of this [pandemic].”

Airbus is collaborating with the UK government and fully supports the net-zero program and already plans on a goal of a carbon-neutral aircraft by 2035. That will require Airbus “to continue investing in disruptive solutions,” she said, but will also require collaboration with other companies. 

“There has been progress,” Vittadini said, in the three key elements of the effort, which include more efficient engines, further commercialization of SAF, and new aircraft and propulsion technologies. For example, Airbus is developing hydrogen as a clean fuel for future aircraft, but also examining novel design principles, air traffic management improvements, and much more widespread distribution of SAF.

“We need to take our inventiveness even further,” she said. “Sustainability is a key prerequisite for aviation. And this can only happen if we channel the power of the collective. The pandemic has not pushed sustainability down in the agenda. It’s quite the opposite. We need to continue full speed ahead with confidence that zero-emission aviation is possible. We see that in times of crisis, you activate resources and a level of creativity you didn’t think you had.”

“In spite of the crisis, we’re more than ever committed [to sustainability],” said Stéphane Cueille, Safran senior executive v-p research, technology, and Innovation. “We’re leading a double life, cutting costs every day and working as hard as ever for plans for sustainable aviation.” While Safran concluded that some cuts were necessary during the pandemic, “We made sure some key actions were preserved," Cueille noted. "Keeping the pace of innovation of future generations of engines is vital.”

Safran is participating with 40 other companies and universities in the next pan-European clean aviation research program. “We’re convinced we have a path [to achieve net-zero goals],” he said.

“Technology-wise, we intend to reduce energy consumption,” Cueille explained. “In parallel, we need to replace fuel by low-carbon-emission fuels, such as biomass [SAF sourced from biomass], synthetic fuels, or hydrogen. SAF is a key element of the mix, not just a gap filler.”

Trying to reach 50 percent SAF use by the world’s airlines in 2050 will take a massive investment, he noted, and part of the problem centers on the fact that airlines have no incentive to switch to a more expensive fuel. “They’re fighting for their lives,” he said. “We need an element of a level playing field, which public policies can address.”

“The increasing influence of people like [the CTOs on this panel] shows this is not policy, it’s real-life solutions,” said Michael Gill, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group. While he acknowledged that governments need to help establish a policy framework that embraces such efforts, he added, more important are “real-life solutions like these companies are working on.”