EU Alliance To Prepare Aviation Sector for Clean Aircraft
Sean Goulding Carroll
July 7, 2022.
A new EU-funded alliance aims to prepare the bloc for the introduction of zero-emission aircraft by upgrading Europe’s aviation infrastructure to meet the needs of electric and hydrogen-powered jets.
The European Commission-funded Alliance for Zero-Emission Aviation will identify the barriers to bringing clean aircraft into commercial service and develop detailed recommendations to address them. It will also promote investment into clean aircraft technology to bolster Europe’s competitiveness in the aerospace sector. A broad spectrum of aviation organisations will join the community, including aircraft manufacturers, airlines, airports, and fuel producers.
Given the breadth of the changes necessitated by the innovative aircraft, the alliance is also seeking the involvement of standardisation and certification agencies, passenger and environmental interest groups, and regulators.
“With the advent of zero emission aircraft, Europe is writing the next chapter in aviation,” said Margrethe Vestager, executive vice-president of the European Commission. “Climate-neutrality is the passport for growth, and the Alliance for Zero Emission Aviation will help the European aeronautical industry to pave the way for a competitive and clean aviation.”
According to EU estimates, the market for zero-emission aircraft could be worth as much as €5 trillion within the next 30 years. It is foreseen that 75% of aircraft globally will use the clean technology currently under development by 2050.
EU industry commissioner Thierry Breton praised Europe’s aeronautics industry as the “most innovative in the world”, adding that the advent of new aircraft technology means “the entire aviation ecosystem, including fuel suppliers, airport operators and regulators, also needs to get ready”.
Flying is a notoriously carbon-intensive mode of transport, requiring large quantities of energy-dense kerosene to propel passengers through the sky. Within the EU, aviation is responsible for around 14% the bloc’s transport greenhouse gas emissions. It contributes some 2.8% of CO2 emissions globally.
To help the EU meet its goal of climate neutrality by 2050, a number of green changes to the aviation industry have been proposed.
EU regulators plan to introduce a requirement for all aircraft refuelling at EU airports to uplift a set percentage of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil fuel, comprised of advanced and waste biofuels and electro-fuels. However, while SAF greatly reduces CO2 emissions compared to fossil oil, it is not entirely emission-free. It is also much more expensive than kerosene and available in extremely small quantities at present.
Electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft are zero-emission flight options, but significant technical challenges must be overcome before the technology is commercially mature. It is also unlikely that the technology will be suitable for long-haul flights for some decades yet.
The extra weight and space constraints posed by batteries and liquid hydrogen storage (which is more voluminous than oil) have forced engineers to overhaul the design of aircraft.
To remain in a liquid state, hydrogen must be kept at -253 degrees Celsius. If the temperature rises, the liquid can quickly turn to gas.
In addition to engineering challenges, a raft of logistic issues must be overcome. Europe’s airports, for example, will need to be equipped with electric charging stations and infrastructure for the refuelling of hydrogen to meet the demand from clean aircraft. It is currently unclear if passengers would be able to remain on the aircraft while hydrogen refuelling takes place, as is the case with kerosene, meaning that the standard procedure of boarding passengers would need to be reviewed.
The certification of innovative aircraft will also require changes to the traditional aircraft safety protocols, changes that must be agreed with regulators prior to industry launch dates. The range and refuelling requirements of the new aircraft could also have an impact on air traffic management, which may require additional training for air traffic controllers.
Facing increasing scrutiny over aviation’s impact on climate, manufacturers have started to invest significantly in developing zero-emission aircraft. Airbus, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, announced plans in February to test a hydrogen-powered jet engine by the middle of the decade. The aircraft manufacturer will fit out an A380 with a hydrogen propulsion engine. The cutting edge technology will be developed in partnership with turbine manufacturer CFM International, a company jointly owned by General Electric and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines.
The EU is also putting forward funds to help bring disruptive and innovative aircraft to market – a move EU leaders believe will safeguard Europe’s lucrative aerospace industry.
The EU-funded Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking brings together major players in the aeronautics industry, as well as small and medium sized enterprises, with research centres and academia to develop lower-emission aviation.
The joint undertaking aims to test novel aircraft power sources and engines by 2029, with the aim of having zero-emission planes ready for entry into service by 2035. It is expected to reduce aircraft emissions by up to 30% compared to 2020 levels.