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What will the future of aviation look like?

Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash.com

Aeroplanes are an integral part of the travel industry. Millions of people fly on holiday every year to visit their favourite countries or discover new destinations. Unfortunately this is not environmentally friendly at all, which is why many scientists are researching how air travel can be made more sustainable.

Climate neutrality is the central goal of aviation. That is why the aviation industry is working flat out to develop future-proof and sustainable technologies. The first CO2-emission-free aircraft is expected to be in operation by 2035. With alternative fuels, hydrogen technology, electric propulsion and improved air traffic management, the energy transition in the skies is becoming reality.

Sustainable aviation fuels play an important role in reducing CO2 emissions. This is why all modern aircraft are already authorised to be blended with up to 50% sustainable aviation fuels. By 2030, this should be up to 100%. The main goal of the World Economic Forum is that 10% of the global jet fuel supply should be sustainable by 2030. At the same time, the production of sustainable aviation fuels must be significantly increased. This will lower the price and enable the transition to alternative fuels in civil aviation. Governments and energy suppliers have a special responsibility here. However, sustainable aviation fuels are only a transitional solution for short and medium-haul flights. Hydrogen technology makes CO2 emission-free short and medium-haul flights possible.

The future of hydrogen?

Hydrogen is considered to be the energy source of the future due to its climate friendliness. British researchers have presented a hydrogen aeroplane that should actually make flying CO2-free in the future. The project sounds promising, but there are hurdles.

Depending on the type of hydrogen, such engines reduce CO2 emissions or even emit no CO2 at all and are therefore climate-friendly. However, the technology is not yet ready for mass use. In aviation in particular, it is still in its infancy. According to the British Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), however, it has now taken a significant step forward. As part of the Fly Zero research project, it has presented the concept of a hydrogen-powered passenger aircraft. According to the developers, it does not emit any climate-damaging CO2 emissions.

The 54-metre-long aircraft offers space for up to 279 passengers and has two hydrogen-powered turbofan engines. It “demonstrates the enormous potential of green liquid hydrogen for air travel.” After all, it should not only be suitable for short-haul routes but also for long-haul flights. Flights from London to destinations such as Beijing, Vancouver or Rio De Janeiro are possible. With a stopover, other destinations such as San Francisco (USA) or Auckland (New Zealand) could also be reached. The hydrogen aircraft should have the same speed and comfort as today’s aeroplanes.

This animation from the ATI shows how the Fly Zero project plane could look like

Electric alternative for short-haul flights?

Flying with electric propulsion could also be an alternative for the future. Initial steps by major airlines point to a change in the short-haul sector. The Canadian airline Air Canada, for example, has ordered 30 ES-30 electric hybrid aircraft. The aircraft, each of which can accommodate 30 passengers, are to fly for Air Canada from 2028. According to the airline, the aircraft will be powered by lithium-ion batteries. In battery mode, the flights are emission-free.

When fully loaded, the battery-powered aircraft would have a range of 200 kilometres. With additional energy from the reserve hybrid generators, which will reportedly be powered by sustainable petrol, the range could be increased to 400 kilometres. If the number of passengers is limited to 25, a range of up to 800 kilometres is also possible. According to Air Canada, the batteries can be recharged within 30 to 50 minutes.

The airline intends to use the ES-30 on regional and commuter routes. In the medium to long term, the aircraft should also be able to connect smaller communities.

Other international airlines also start to think about whether electric hybrid aircrafts like the ES-30 will fit for their fleet. Especially for regional or commuter flights the new engine option can drastically reduce CO2 emissions, as those flight routes are often highly frequented with several starts and landings every day.

Similar types of aircraft could replace the busy Hamburg-Munich or Frankfurt-Berlin commuter routes in the German short-haul sector in the future, but it is not yet clear if or when German airlines will take the step towards the electric future of aviation.

Air traffic management as a transitional solution

Air traffic management often plays a subordinate role in discussions about climate-neutral flying. Yet improvements in this area can already drastically reduce CO2 emissions today. Various measures such as continuous climb and descent operations, which make circling in holding patterns superfluous, flight path optimisation in the form of direct flight paths between departure and arrival points, as well as flying at certain altitudes and taxiing on the runway with only one engine can lead to CO2 savings of up to 10%. This was demonstrated by the flight of an Airbus A320neo from Paris to Toulouse. It marks the beginning of a series of research flights that will take place between 2021 and 2022 as part of the Single European Sky research project Albatross. The aim is to gain insights into improved air traffic management and thus reduce emissions.

By the time the first electric and hybrid aircraft take off in 2028, the development of classic aviation could also continue to progress. In the long term, the new types of propulsion offer companies a good opportunity to prepare for the future in terms of the environment and sustainability. Nevertheless, we probably won’t know what the more recent future of aviation will actually look like until around 2028.

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