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The UK can be a leader in pushing the aerospace sector to a sustainable future

New technologies and practices are already delivering benefits.

By Gary Elliott

For decades, aviation has brought a broad range of benefits to the world. Air transport lets people travel and interact; it allows goods and services to reach market faster and it connects remote places with the rest of the world. In countries such as the UK it supports hundreds of thousands of highly skilled workers, returning significant economic value back to
the country.

But there is no question that the sector must urgently address its environmental impact and decarbonise. Research published in the journal Atmospheric Environment found that aviation contributes around 3.5 per cent to global warming through carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and contrails. Without the adoption of lower-carbon technologies, aviation will contribute up to 38 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions to 2050, which will represent an increasing percentage of overall emissions as other sectors decarbonise.

In 2021, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the world’s airlines, passed a resolution that committed its member airlines to achieve net zero carbon emissions from their operations by 2050. While each new aircraft is more efficient than its predecessor, this target will not be reached by incremental improvements. Compounding this, global demand for air travel is expected to continue to grow; between them, Airbus and Boeing have order backlogs of over 13,000 aircraft.

Decarbonising air transport is difficult. Aircraft and their systems are complex and must meet exceptionally high safety standards, meaning technologies take a long time to de-risk and deploy. In the first instance, fleet renewal is the most impactful way of increasing sustainability. Choosing to fly on newer aircraft today will support this process. In the immediate future, Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) and efficiency improvements will drive emissions down further but by themselves will not achieve the net zero target. In the longer term, newer technologies utilising different propulsion systems such as hydrogen-powered gas turbines, batteries and fuel cell technologies offer the potential for genuine zero-carbon emission flights at scale, but this will take time and investment to achieve.

Investment needs to be geared towards maximising the potential of both zero-carbon emission technologies and technologies that help aircraft to be more efficient. These ultra-efficient aircraft technologies – for example, maximising aerodynamics, improving thermal efficiency and using lightweight materials – reduce in-flight energy usage and will remain critical for zero-carbon platforms.

However, it is not just carbon emissions that aviation needs to address. The UK government’s Jet Zero Strategy launched in 2022 outlined its approach to achieving Net Zero 2050 aviation and rightly focused on minimising the carbon dioxide emitted by aircraft, but it also acknowledged other atmospheric emissions. Non-carbon dioxide (non-CO2) emissions is a collective term for all emissions other than carbon that are emitted by aircraft in flight that contribute to climate impact. The array of emissions that are not carbon dioxide have varying and complex interactions, meaning significant coordinated research is required to help inform sustainable aircraft technology development.

Through our Destination Zero strategy, the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) has set out a direction for the UK aerospace industry to rise to the challenge of Net Zero 2050 and at the same time secure an opportunity to lead the world in advanced next-generation aircraft technologies.

Since the ATI Programme started in 2014, we have been a living example of a green industrial policy in the UK. The ATI Programme has facilitated over £3.5bn of research and development investment to date, reflecting a combination of UK government and industry funding, and has unlocked investment from over 400 organisations across the UK. Last year the UK Government confirmed an additional £975m funding for the ATI Programme to 2030. This will enable the programme to go even further in helping make the UK the world’s most vibrant ecosystem for the development and deployment of aerospace technology.

The ATI Programme has invested in a wide range of zero-carbon emission and ultra-efficient technologies, as well as the technology enablers that make these technologies and their manufacture possible – and most recently we have begun investing in non-carbon dioxide focused research too.

We have seen many notable successes over the past ten years. The ATI-funded UltraFan project from Rolls-Royce is 25 per cent more efficient than the previous generation of engines and also offers 40 per cent less nitrogen oxide and almost zero non-volatile particulate matter at cruise. These next generation engines are designed to be 100 per cent SAF compatible from day one.

In 2023, as part of another project supported by the ATI, ZeroAvia successfully completed the world’s first flight-test programme for a sub-regional hydrogen-electric aircraft. They conducted a range of critical rig testing, ground testing and flight testing of a first generation hydrogen fuel cell electric powertrain offering zero-carbon emissions.

The ATI portfolio of funded research includes support for Airbus and its Wing of Tomorrow programme, led from the UK with a new innovation centre in Bristol. A new manufacturing centre for Boeing is being built in partnership with the University of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, while His Majesty the King officially broke ground for a new facility at the Whittle Lab at the University of Cambridge. Safran’s Gloucester site has also established itself as a centre of excellence in landing gear with support from the ATI.

These projects and many more demonstrate that the UK is in a strong position to accelerate the development of sustainable aircraft technologies, and capitalise on the market opportunity this brings. The UK aerospace sector has a rich history of innovation and is rising to the challenge of reaching net zero flight. The roots of the UK’s success include an enduring presence of global companies like Airbus and Rolls-Royce, an excellent research base and skills pipeline, an effective regulatory environment and strong partnership between industry and government. Working across the sector to deliver a long-term strategy, investment and world-leading technologies will put the UK at the forefront of a globally competitive and sustainable industry.

The greatest need for the global aerospace sector now is to increase the pace of investing and technology development. Now is the time to accelerate the development and adoption of new fuels and novel technologies. The sector still has enormous challenges ahead and the timescales are very tight; we cannot afford to take this slowly.

This article first appeared in a Spotlight print report on Sustainability, published on 10 May 2024. Read it in full here.

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