American Airlines will join an advisory panel established by aircraft manufacturer Embraer to help define its new Energia family of low-or-no-emission regional airliners. The Brazilian airframer is considering four aircraft concepts, ranging from 9- to 50-seat capacity, powered by a mix of electric, hydrogen and hybrid propulsion systems. Initially, the airframer is focused on 19-seat and 30-seat versions of two proposed aircraft, one powered by a hybrid-electric propulsion system, the other hydrogen-electric. Embraer is targeting technology readiness of the Energia Hybrid E19-HE and E30-HE aircraft by the early 2030s, and the Energia H2 Fuel Cell models E19-H2FC and E30-H2FC by 2035. American is a major operator of Embraer jets, as is another recent addition to the Energia advisory group, US contract carrier Republic Airways, which operates over 200 Embraer jets on behalf of American, Delta and United.
While most public discourse on sustainable aviation concentrates on reducing the carbon emissions of large, medium-to-long-range aircraft, predominantly by increasing the use of sustainable aviation fuels, it is the short-haul sector in which novel propulsion technologies are being developed, tested and certified, before being evolved for use in larger planes.
Currently, most focus is on retrofitting existing turboprop aircraft with new electric, hybrid-electric or hydrogen-electric powertrains, which are faster and far less expensive to certify and introduce than all-new aircraft models. But while providing low-emission propulsion for in-service aircraft, the new powertrains will also help pave the way for a new generation of ‘clean sheet’ aircraft such as Embraer’s Energia range.
“American operates the youngest mainline fleet and the largest regional fleet among US network carriers,” explained Embraer, “and in 2022 consumed more than 2 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuel. It has also invested in the development of hydrogen-powered propulsion and infrastructure.”
Arjan Meijer, CEO of Embraer Commercial Aviation, said American had signed a MoU to help define the performance and design characteristics of the Energia aircraft concepts as part of a broader advisory group, with members including airlines, aircraft lessors, engine manufacturers and other suppliers. “It’s essential for Energia’s success that we involve a wide variety of air operators,” he said. “American joining our advisory group, with their huge presence and expertise, is a significant step for the Energia project. This group has developed into a core part of the programme because of the breadth and depth of the expertise the different members bring to the table. We’re excited to work together with a world-leading airline on the biggest challenge our industry faces.”
American’s participation in the Energia project closely followed an order for seven new Embraer E175 jets, to be operated by its wholly-owned subsidiary Envoy Air. Deliveries will begin in Q4 this year, increasing Envoy’s all-Embraer fleet to 141 jets by the end of 2024.
“As the operator of the largest US regional fleet, we believe industry collaborations aimed at advancing decarbonisation technologies are critical to helping aviation reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050,” said American’s VP of Sustainability, Jill Blickstein. “We look forward to working with Embraer and other members of the Energia Advisory Group to develop next-generation, zero-emission aircraft.”
The 19- and 30-seat Energia hybrid-electric concept aircraft are planned to operate up to 500 nautical miles (926 kilometres), and achieve CO2 emission reductions of 30% if operated with Jet A1 fuel, or up to 90% with SAF, while the Energia H2 Fuel Cell models are being designed to operate over 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres).
Embraer is also considering a 9-seat all-electric version, the E9-FE, again with a 200 nm range, while the largest concept under consideration, the Energia H2 Gas Turbine aircraft (E50-H2GT), will use either SAF or hydrogen to power a gas turbine. The dual fuel options for modified gas turbine engines would offer operational flexibility and lower aircraft weight, enabling a flight range of 350-500 nm (648-926 km) with 35-50 passengers, and technology readiness by 2040.
To progress its zero-emission aircraft ambitions, Embraer has also joined forces with UK-headquartered GKN Aerospace to help accelerate the introduction of hydrogen-powered aircraft, exploring innovative hydrogen fuel cell technologies, optimised integration of these propulsion systems into airframes, and even the potential for a hydrogen flight demonstrator.
Through its H2Gear programme, GKN is already exploring development of a fuel cell system which converts liquid hydrogen to electricity. Initially, it is targeting use in sub-regional aircraft, but with potential to upscale for larger planes.
Image: Embraer’s Energia Family concept