Uncomfortable day for aviation as Farnborough runway hits 50C

JRunway temperatures hit 50C at the Farnborough Airshow this week. Officials checked the melting tarmac between the aerospace industry showing off its wares, with passenger jet flights including the Boeing 777X and Airbus A350, various military aircraft and flypasts from the Arrows Display Team red.

Monday’s heat was a reminder, if need be, of the urgency of decarbonizing aviation, responsible for around 3% of global emissions. The threat of a climate crisis has tarnished an industry that was once at the height of glamour, and zero-emissions flight presents a far greater technical challenge than decarbonizing most other sectors of the economy.

Air passengers are roaring for lockdowns, on slower lockdowns, even on long-haul routes, but aerospace executives are emissions-conscious and delivering their investments in technologies that will enable carbon-free flight, while governments are belatedly turning to aviation.

Boris Johnson confused executives with a rambling opening speech – “an audition for his future career on the after-dinner circuit”, a senior industry official noted wryly – but the UK government also used the broadcast to promise that 2019 would be the peak year for aviation emissions.

The key measure – beyond an aspiration to have zero-emissions flights by 2030 in parts of the UK – was a mandate that 10% of all jet fuel used in the UK is jet fuel. sustainable aviation (SAF) by 2030, double the EU target. This will happen thanks to the ambition to have at least five commercial scale SAF factories under construction in the UK by 2025.

Cockpit of a Boeing 777X on display at the Farnborough Airshow
Cockpit of a Boeing 777X on display at the Farnborough Airshow. Photography: John Keeble/Getty Images

Environmental groups said the strategy did not focus on reducing air traffic – a swear word at an industry event known for its barrage of orders for new jets that produce more than 800,000 tonnes of fuel. carbon dioxide equivalent over their lifetime.

Alethea Warrington, an activist with climate charity Possible, said: “By relying heavily on underdeveloped, hugely expensive or unworkable technologies, the strategy fails crucially by leaving out a policy of theft. to equitably reduce demand such as a frequent flyer tax.”

Asked about the change in policy that could accompany a change in prime minister, Warren East, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce, said he hoped the UK government would remain committed to cutting emissions.

“The energy transition and the need for zero carbon energy transcends any change in government,” he said.

Some Airbus and Boeing suppliers are less exposed to existential risk than engine manufacturers. Collins announced that he was developing high-voltage, high-power wiring that could be used in hybrid engines that combine electricity and fossil fuels. The US factory in Solihull in the West Midlands has also produced a prototype working electric motor for the Airlander airship, which will be fully electric by 2030.

Henry Brooks, president of power and controls at Collins, said hybrid propulsion could potentially save up to 30% of an airliner’s emissions. “The hybrid electric part is very real,” he said.

For net zero flight, however, Farnborough’s message was that the industry pin its hopes first on SAF and then on unproven hydrogen technologies.

SAF can be made from plants or smart chemistry. Yet many analysts doubt that it can live up to its name without using vast amounts of arable land for raw material or vast amounts of energy in chemical reactions.

Pratt & Whitney's PW123 engine on display at the Farnborough Airshow
Pratt & Whitney’s PW123 engine on display at the Farnborough Airshow. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

East said he sees “several decades” of demand for SAF, after a first net zero flight in 2023.

The industry’s second big hope is hydrogen. Hydrogen is an attractive fuel because water, rather than carbon dioxide, is the only product released when it oxidizes.

EasyJet and Rolls-Royce announced at the show they would jointly invest in hydrogen gas turbine engines, while Airbus said this week it would study the effects of atmospheric vapor trails produced from hydrogen. Airbus has already announced work on hydrogen propulsion with CFM, an engine joint venture owned by General Electric and Safran, unlike Boeing whose hydrogen efforts have been limited to testing a storage tank.

“Hydrogen is being built as a sort of panacea,” East said, but he expects it to take 15 to 25 years before a twin-aisle jumbo can operate on its own. on gas.

Even then, it could still rely on combustion rather than generating electricity on board with fuel cells. A combustion scenario could allow engine manufacturers to continue manufacturing cost-effective but polluting gas turbines (theoretically capable of burning kerosene or hydrogen) for longer.

Val Miftakhov, chief executive of hydrogen fuel cell aircraft startup ZeroAvia, said his goal was a “true zero” flight using hydrogen produced from renewable energy – not net zero, which relies on the re-emission of previously captured carbon into the atmosphere.

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The company aims to certify a 19-seat aircraft by 2024 and a 90-seat aircraft by 2028. It is optimistic that “within 20 to 30 years we will have technology that will cover all aircraft”, but adds the caveat that “I can’t tell you exactly how.

Battery-electric flight on passenger jets capable of carrying more than 100 people is more remote. East said it would be “probably in my lifetime in a fairly small plane – but I’ll be very old”. A battery-powered transatlantic flight is more likely to be seen by its grandchildren, he added.

In the meantime, the industry is hedging its bets on how to fly with zero emissions. But the windfall in orders for fossil-fueled jets suggests that, despite all the talk at Farnborough about emission-reducing technologies, the aviation industry is counting on the jet fuel era to continue for decades.

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