EU announces fresh funding for ‘disruptive’ research into clean aircraft

"We need faster, more disruptive innovations and a rapid influx and integration of key emerging technologies, including promising solutions from other sectors, to secure climate-neutral aviation," said Axel Krein, executive director of the CleanSky2 joint undertaking. [EPA-EFE/LAURENT GILLIERON]

The European Commission announced on Tuesday (23 February) that it will finance the development of new aircraft powered by clean fuel sources, in a bid to cut aviation emissions by 2050.

The EU executive said the money will go towards “disruptive research and innovation solutions” in the aviation sector, to develop “the next generation of ultra-efficient low-carbon aircraft”.

Clean Sky 2, a joint undertaking between the European Union and the aviation industry, said it will pursue three main thrusts as part of the programme: “hybrid electric and full electric concepts, ultra-efficient aircraft architectures, and disruptive technologies to enable hydrogen-powered aircraft”.

The aim is to introduce a new breed of regional, short and medium haul airliners that will be offered to the market by 2030 for an entry into service by 2035.

“These new aircraft are likely to constitute 75% of the world’s commercial airline fleet by 2050 and thus will have a major impact on aviation’s emissions and climate impact,” it said.

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The EU will also fund improvements in air traffic management to cut emissions, bolstering the ‘Single European Sky’ initiative. In a statemen, the EU executive said it aims to make European airspace the “most efficient and environmentally friendly sky to fly in the world”.

The Single European Sky initiative has been in the works for over a decade, aiming to consolidate national air traffic control systems to provide greater efficiency in air routes. At present, planes are often forced to fly indirect routes to avoid crossing virtual borders set by states.

Implementing this initiative – welcomed by industry and environmentalists alike – has been surprisingly difficult, as national governments, reluctant to cede control over airspace, drag their feet.

The funding is part of the EU executive’s new investment package, which will see €10 billion go to research partnerships between the EU, member states, and industry.

Provided under the EU research and innovation programme Horizon Europe, it is foreseen that the investment will raise a similar contribution from the private sector.

“EU partnerships will have a central role to drive the twin green and digital transition for the mobility and transport sector,” said Adina Vălean, EU Commissioner for Transport.

“To make our ambitions come true, we need to develop disruptive technologies bringing zero-emission vessels and aircraft to the market, we need to develop and deploy cooperative, connected and automated mobility, and we need to enable a more efficient and modern traffic management,” she added.

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Clean Sky

The European partnership for clean aviation will build on the work of the ‘Clean Sky’ joint undertaking, a public-private partnership between the European Commission and the aeronautics industry running since 2008.

Now in its second iteration, the joint research programme has provided billions for the development of breakthrough technologies to green airplanes.

“The time has come for a radical change. We need faster, more disruptive innovations and a rapid influx and integration of key emerging technologies, including promising solutions from other sectors, to secure climate-neutral aviation,” said Axel Krein, executive director of the Clean Sky 2 joint undertaking.

“Faced with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must take this opportunity to re-imagine the aviation industry – in a sustainable and green way,” he added.

Earlier this month, the European airline industry released its own pathway to carbon-neutrality by 2050. Improvements in aircraft and engine technologies are a major pillar of the plan.

Industry officials previously called on the EU to ramp up investment into innovation, citing the green potential of hydrogen and electric aircraft.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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