First clean jets will be ready for commercial flight by 2035, industry says

By 2050, it is foreseen that 75% of aircraft globally will use the clean technology currently under development. [Airbus 2021]

Carbon-emission free aircraft – either electric or hydrogen-powered – will be developed within six years, with the first jets commercially carrying passengers “from 2035 onwards,” industry experts have forecast.

If achieved, it would mark a green revolution for an industry that has become synonymous with carbon-intensive travel.

Airlines will be able to make a down payment on concepts such as hydrogen-powered jet engines by 2028, with the large-scale deployment of the aircraft by 2035. By 2050, it is foreseen that 75% of aircraft globally will use the clean technology currently under development.

The tight timeline is necessary to achieve the EU’s environmental aim of climate neutrality by 2050, explained Axel Krein, head of the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking, an EU and industry-backed programme to accelerate green aircraft innovation.

“We looked backwards from the 2050 target in terms of what needs to be done by when in order to make it a success. If you want to have climate neutrality by 2050, you need to have those new aircraft entering into service into the airline fleet from 2035 onwards,” he said.

Having this technology available by 2028 is necessary for manufacturers, such as Airbus, to offer the aircraft to airlines shopping for fleet renewals, explained Ron van Manen, Clean Aviation’s head of strategic development.

“Any later and we can’t [achieve] the fleet replacement. And if we haven’t made a very significant step in aviation [emissions] by 2050 then we’re going to be the tobacco industry, the bad guys,” he told EURACTIV.

Speaking at a gathering of policymakers and industry organised by the Clean Aviation joint undertaking, Guillaume Faury, chief executive officer of Airbus, the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer, said environmental improvements will help to end questions over the viability of flying in a time of climate crisis.

“As a result [of efficiency improvements] aviation is the transport mode of the future, not of the past, in terms of environmental protection,” he said.

Disruption

Industry giants are heavily investing in disruptive propulsion technology, eager to avoid the fate of the automotive industry, which saw incumbent players’ market value surpassed by Tesla – a new market entrant offering an environmentally friendly vehicle.

Manufacturers are looking at hybrid electric aircraft, hydrogen-propulsion systems, and ultra-efficient aircraft design as a means of slashing aviation emissions.

Airbus is currently preparing a flight test for a hydrogen-powered jet engine, which the company says will take place by 2025.

Airbus to test hydrogen jet engine in step towards zero emission aviation

Airbus has announced plans to test a hydrogen-powered jet engine by the middle of the decade, as the world’s largest plane manufacturer pushes to meet its 2035 deadline of building a zero emission aircraft.

Airbus engineers are focusing on passenger aircraft capable of short-haul journeys of less than 4,000km, a range that produces around two thirds of global emissions.

Once there is broad market acceptance of the technology, the size of clean aircraft will be scaled up according to Airbus.

As engineers grapple with how to cut aircraft weight while providing sufficient space for alternative fuels, they have jettisoned the typical fuselage and wing design that has been a hallmark of the industry since the 1950s.

The new planes are designed “to use less fuel and better fuel,” explained Eric Dalbies, senior executive vice president of French aircraft equipment manufacturer Safran.

Developing carbon-free aircraft is not just an environmentally beneficial proposition, but a highly lucrative one – European industry is racing to establish itself as a leader in the nascent market, which has the potential to bring an estimated €5 trillion in economic value.

But developing ‘clean sheet’ aircraft, in which present-day designs are completely overhauled rather than gradually improved, is expensive.

The EU has pledged €1.7 billion to the Clean Aviation joint undertaking through its R&D funding programme Horizon Europe, with a further €2.4 billion coming from Europe’s aviation industry.

However, much more is needed to meet the goals of zero-emission flying, according to van Manen.

“We think the journey towards these aircraft being ready for product development will require around €12 billion over the next decade. That’s three times the size of Clean Aviation,” he said.

Changing passengers’ mindset

Typically, electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft have been seen as a means to decarbonise short-haul flights, with sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), made from biofuels and electro-fuels, considered the solution to decarbonise long-haul flights.

However, changing how long-distance flights are broken up could make clean aircraft technology viable for journeys of over 8,000km according to van Manen.

The aviation expert said that passengers may need to accept that long-distance flights will require more frequent layovers, as hydrogen powered planes are likely to have a limit of around 10,000km before refuelling.

Already today, many passengers are content to have a stop-over during long journeys, whether it’s to save money or to stretch their legs, he said. This will need to become more common given the space limitations of clean aircraft, van Manen believes.

“Passengers and airlines today have the mindset of being able to go anywhere in the world non-stop. I would challenge that. I would challenge whether in a sustainable aviation environment in the 2040s or 2050s you can afford to do that,” he said.

“I think the travelling public is going to go through a reconsideration,” he added.

ReFuelEU

In the immediate term, both industry and lawmakers are turning to SAFs to cut aviation emissions.

Under proposals tabled by the EU Commission in July, all aircraft refuelling in the EU would be required to uplift kerosene mixed with a set percentage of green jet fuel. This percentage will scale up over time, reaching 63% of the fuel mix by 2050.

SAFs are popular with airlines as they can be dropped into current aircraft models without changes to the engine. Adaptations are required only when the share of SAF goes over 50%.

Willie Walsh, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), called on lawmakers to incentivise the production of SAFs, calling it key to meeting the 2050 climate goals.

Airlines are willing to pay higher SAF prices, which can be up to three times that of kerosene, but are hamstrung by the lack of supply, according to Walsh.

Lawmaker proposes raising EU green jet fuel target to 100% by 2050

A draft European Parliament report calls for greater ambition in the EU’s proposed green jet fuel law, including a higher percentage of mandatory sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for planes refuelling in the bloc.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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