The unprecedented heatwave sweeping the UK during the 2022 Farnborough International Airshow was a timely, if unwelcome, prod to the aviation sector that it must continue raising its game in the collective fight to mitigate the growing impact of global warming. Established and emerging aerospace players, from Airbus to ZeroAvia, used the biggest air show since the start of the pandemic to promote and progress deals, partnerships and initiatives designed to help deliver net zero emissions by 2050. In addition to more than 300 orders for new-technology aircraft, Farnborough showcased a range of developments on new propulsion systems and fuels, the growing trend to convert fossil-fuelled aircraft to zero emission power and continued strong growth in the urban air mobility sector, reports Tony Harrington. As countries met in Montreal to discuss a long-term target to reduce emissions from international aviation, the UK government released at the air show its eagerly-awaited Jet Zero Strategy to decarbonise the British aviation sector.
Having recently unveiled plans to use an A380 superjumbo as a testbed for its ZEROe hydrogen propulsion programme, Airbus announced it would convert a second A380, this time to be used in a collaboration with engine manufacturer CFM International to test new open-architecture powerplants. This engine technology, known as RISE (Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines), features large external fans which are expected to drive significant operating efficiencies and cut emissions by 20%.
Airbus UpNext, a subsidiary of the airframer, also announced a partnership with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to study contrails created by hydrogen-powered engines. Through a new project called Blue Condor, two modified Arcus gliders will be deployed, one powered by a conventional kerosene combustion engine, the other hydrogen combustion. A chase aircraft will follow each of these craft to assess and compare their contrails at high altitude, in what will be the first in-flight tests by Airbus using a hydrogen engine.
To further support its hydrogen ambitions, Airbus has invested an undisclosed amount in Hy24, described as the world’s largest clean hydrogen infrastructure investment fund, focused on supporting large-scale green hydrogen infrastructure projects. “Since 2020, Airbus has partnered with numerous airlines, airports, energy providers and industry partners to develop a stepped approach to global hydrogen availability,” said Karine Guenan, VP ZEROe Ecosystem, Airbus. “Joining a fund of this magnitude demonstrates Airbus’ continuously active role in infrastructure investments for the production, storage and distribution of clean hydrogen worldwide.”
Rolls-Royce and European low-cost airline easyJet also announced a hydrogen propulsion programme, the H2Zero Partnership, to jointly pioneer the development of hydrogen combustion engine technology suitable for a range of aircraft, including narrowbody airliners, from the mid-2030s. This collaboration, which combines Rolls-Royce’s engine expertise and easyJet’s operational experience, will start later this year with engine tests on the ground and ambitions by both companies to also progress to flight tests.
“In order to achieve net zero by 2050, we have always said that radical action is needed to address aviation’s climate impact,” said Johan Lundgren, CEO of easyJet. “The technology that emerges from this programme has the potential to power easyJet-size aircraft, which is why we will also be making a multi-million-pound investment into this programme. In order to achieve decarbonisation at scale, progress on the development of zero-emission technology for narrowbody aircraft is crucial. Together with Rolls-Royce, we look forward to leading the industry to tackle this challenge head-on.”
Boeing, which announced more than 200 aircraft orders at the show, has become a founding member of the University of Sheffield Energy Innovation Centre to explore various methods of producing sustainable aviation fuel, and bringing it to market. During the air show, the aircraft OEM revealed it was advancing its partnership with the University of Cambridge on the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA), an international group of practitioners and academics convened by the university. AIA develops interactive evidence-based models, simulations and visualisation tools for decision-makers and the wider engaged public to understand the pathways to net zero flight. The outcomes and key learnings will eventually be integrated into Boeing’s Cascade data modelling tool, which provides real-time visualisation of carbon emission reductions in aviation, and also announced during the show. The model assesses the full lifecycle impacts of renewable energy by accounting for the emissions required to produce, distribute and use alternative energy carriers such as hydrogen, electricity and SAF. Boeing said it plans to utilise the tool with airline operators, industry partners and policymakers to inform when, where and how different fuel sources intersect with new airplane designs.
The company also expanded a long-standing collaboration with Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy industries to study electric and hydrogen propulsion, development of green hydrogen, new feedstocks and technologies for development of SAF, carbon capture and conversion, sustainable materials and new aircraft design concepts. As well, Boeing announced a $50 million investment in AEI HorizonX, a partnership it established with private equity group AE Industrial Partners to support transformative aerospace technologies.
“In order for the aviation industry to meet its net zero carbon emissions commitment by 2050 it will take all of us collaborating and investing in scientific research and testing,” said Boeing’s VP of Global Sustainability Policy, Brian Moran.
Boeing also announced a new partnership with Alder Fuels to expand production of SAF around the world. Using Boeing aircraft, the companies will test and qualify Alder-derived SAF, advance policies to expedite aviation’s energy transition.
Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic, Corendon Dutch Airlines and Albawings have selected Boeing’s Jeppesen FliteDeck Advisor to optimise operational efficiency and reduce fuel consumption across their fleets of Boeing aircraft. During a three-month trial on its 787 Dreamliners, Virgin Atlantic found the digital solution delivered cruise fuel savings of 1.7%, saving around 1,900kg of CO2 per flight.
Hydrogen propulsion pioneer ZeroAvia secured an additional $30 million from new investors including Barclays Sustainable Impact Capital, NEOM, a sustainable regional development in Saudi Arabia, and the impact technology fund AENU, as well as additional capital from International Airlines Group, an existing investor and parent of airlines including British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and LEVEL. “Our new investors are each looking at our journey through a different lens,” said Val Miftakhov, founder and CEO of ZeroAvia, “but all energised by our mission to enable zero-emission flight using hydrogen-electric engines.”
ZeroAvia, Universal Hydrogen and Ampaire announced during the air show a total of 55 firm orders for kits to convert commuter or turboprop aircraft from fossil fuels to zero-emission electric or hydrogen propulsion, while Swiss aero-battery manufacturer H55 launched a partnership with Canadian training group CAE and Piper Aircraft to convert to battery-electric power two-thirds of CAE’s fleet of Piper Archer training aircraft. Ampaire also flagged in excess of 200 orders on the horizon for its Eco Caravan and Eco Otter aircraft, re-engined variants of the Cessna Caravan and De Havilland Twin Otter regional aircraft.
GKN Aerospace revealed during the show that advances in fuel cell technology could enable hydrogen-electric propulsion to be scaled up more quickly than previously thought. The company had assumed that hydrogen propulsion was easiest to introduce for aircraft seating around 19 passengers, but now believes the use of cryogenic cooling technology can expedite deployment of the technology to power aircraft seating 96 or even more passengers, and reducing both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions.
Norway’s Widerøe Zero, the sustainability arm of regional airline Widerøe, signed a MoU with Embraer to help develop the airframer’s new Energia family of zero emission aircraft, with four variants ranging from 19 to 50 seats, while Collins Aerospace has completed the preliminary design of a 1-megawatt motor and controller to power a hybrid-electric demonstrator aircraft for the engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada.
Collins and Pratt & Whitney also launched a new electric propulsion concept, the Scaleable Turboelectric Powertrain Technology demonstrator (STEP-tech), to power novel aircraft including high-speed electric vertical take-off or landing craft (eVTOL), unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and small-to-medium commercial aircraft, while new deals, developments and partnerships were announced in the eVTOL segment by companies including Germany’s Lilium, Embraer’s Eve, UK-based Vertical Aerospace, French start-up Ascendance Flight Technologies and a tie up between Rolls Royce and Hyundai Motor Group’s air taxi division, Supernal.
GE Aviation announced a milestone for its own electric engine programme, conducting the world’s first test of a hybrid-electric propulsion system in simulated high-altitude conditions. Using NASA’s Electric Aircraft Testbed (NEAT) in Sandusky, Ohio, GE assessed a pair of hybrid electric systems, one to simulate an aircraft’s left engine, the other its right engine, in conditions expected when flying at 45,000 feet. The test simulated the electrical loads needed to optimise engine performance, while propelling and powering an aircraft at that altitude.
Mohamed Ali, VP and GM of Engineering for GE Aerospace, said: “We’re making aviation history by developing the technology to help make hybrid electric flight possible for everyday commercial air travel. We just passed a key milestone by successfully concluding the world’s first test of a high power, high voltage electric system at altitude conditions. This is one of many milestones in our journey with NASA towards demonstrating a hybrid electric aircraft engine system for a more sustainable future of flight.”
A small Spanish airline, AlbaStar, was identified at Farnborough as the European launch customer for the US-made WheelTug electric taxiing system, which enables aircraft to be manoeuvred around airports without using external tractors or their own engines. Using a small electric motor installed within the nosewheel, pilots can control all ground movements by their aircraft, including reversing from airport aerobridges. AlbaStar, which operates six Boeing 737 jets, estimates that in a year the WheelTug system could eliminate 1 million kilograms of CO2 and nitrogen oxide emissions from the airline’s operations. The WheelTug system is due to be introduced into service in mid-2023.
Image (Embraer): Norwegian airline Widerøe has signed a MoU with Embraer to help develop the airframer’s new Energia family of zero emission aircraft