The aviation industry will need to up its game to achieve the key objective of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, according to speakers at a conference organized last month by GKN Aerospace to mark the official opening of its new Global Technology Centre (GTC) in the UK. Stephen Fitzpatrick, founder, and CEO of eVTOL aircraft developer Vertical Aerospace, went so far as to call for governments to introduce carbon taxes on commercial aviation fuel to encourage the industry to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels.
“The government needs to put a price on carbon, put a price on the problem,” he said. “It can start low, but it will get us to the right price [for Jet-A fuel] which should be around $50 or $60 per tonne. A simple carbon tax is the best way to support that.”
While that demand might seem sacrilegious to many in the air transport sector, Fitzpatrick, who owns one of the UK’s largest domestic energy supply companies, argued that the absence of fuel taxes in commercial aviation distorts operating costs and undermines efforts to persuade aircraft operators to renew their fleets with new electric and hydrogen propulsion systems.
While shying away from endorsing the call for a fuel tax, other speakers shared the sense of urgency. “To get to net zero in 2050, we’ve got to supercharge what’s been done already,” said Emma Gilthorpe, CEO of the UK’s Jet Zero Council. “Initially, we talked about a goal of cutting emissions [from aviation] by 10 percent by 2030, and, at the time, that seemed ambitious but now it seems as if we have to at least achieve that,” Gilthorpe said.
GKN uses the new GTC facility as an innovation hub for technology aimed at reducing aerospace’s carbon footprint. Work includes the Airbus “Wing of Tomorrow” program and the H2Gear project to develop a new hydrogen-electric powertrain. Both Airbus (Stand 1050) and Rolls-Royce (Chalet A16) have large factories close to the site at Filton near Bristol.
Trevor Higgs, vice president of engineering and general manager of Airbus UK, said that the scope for partnership presented by facilities like the GTC will be critical to the aerospace group achieving its objective of bringing a zero-emission, hydrogen-powered airliner into commercial service by 2035. “Obviously, Airbus cannot achieve this ambitious challenge on its own; the aerospace ecosystem around Filton is vital to achieving our goals,” he said.
Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer Paul Stein said that cutting carbon emissions from commercial flying will heavily depend on the availability of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). He said that oil companies face a collective $4 trillion price tag to make a switch from a business model based entirely on fossil fuels.
“This really is like a moonshot and it may get done through a novel approach to chemistry to create e-fuels, rather than beautiful new aircraft,” Stein told the GKN conference. “About 14 percent of net-zero will come from disruptive technologies, including electric aircraft, but SAF will have a bigger impact and will be the lion’s share [of progress] by 2050, along with more efficient engines.”
The switch to SAF won’t come cheap, Stein acknowledged, saying that Rolls-Royce agrees with Shell’s assessment that the new fuels could cost two to five times more than Jet-A. He supported the efforts of carriers such as the International Airlines Group to establish binding mandates for the percentage of SAF in blended fuel supplies. “In the process, we’ll find ways of driving down the price [of SAF], but the market has to be stimulated by regulation, blend mandates or subsidies at source,” he said while stopping short of endorsing Fitzpatrick’s call for a new carbon tax.
The new GTC facility at Filton represents an initial investment of £32 million ($44 million), almost half of which the UK government covered through its Aerospace Technology Institute. In July, the facility delivered the first full set of wings, empennage, and wiring for Eviation’s all-electric Alice aircraft, which the company expects to make its first flight in December. GKN also partnered with eVTOL aircraft developers Vertical Aerospace and Joby Aviation.
John Pritchard, president of GKN’s civil aerospace business, said that his company supplied the aerostructures and components supplied to Eviation within 12 months of the customer's specifications. He said the accelerated development path had been possible due to the high degree of focus in the GTC, which completed the work in around a third of the time he estimated it would have taken in one of GKN’s existing production sites. “We’re entirely focused on future technologies and decarbonization of aviation, and we can’t do that alone, we have to work closely with our partners, and recruiting the right skills is also very important to us,” he told reporters.
Part of the decarbonization effort involves making the production process more sustainable. According to Pritchard, the Airbus “Wing of Tomorrow” will require at least 60 percent less energy to produce and will involve a 20 percent reduction in waste materials.
The new GTC, which complements similar facilities that GKN already operates in Sweden and the Netherlands, will house around 300 people from the company and its partners. It will receive an annual investment for research and development work of approximately £30 million.
“The challenge that we as an industry face is: how can we continue to deliver the huge benefits of flight, but in a truly sustainable way?” asked GKN Aerospace chief executive David Paja. “That is why GKN Aerospace has set itself the target to become a net-zero business by 2050, with ambitious five-year targets along the way.”
At the 2021 Dubai Airshow, trade organization ADS (Stand 440/530) represents the UK's aerospace, defense, space, and security industries.