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Airplane Industry’s Race to Fly Without Carbon Emissions

Wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars are icons of the global drive to avert climate change by decreasing carbon emissions, but the air travel industry is lagging badly.

According to a United Nations analysis, air travel by 2050 will emit 62 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, or 27 percent of the U.N.’s global carbon “budget.” This is unless the aircraft industry develops electric engines and similar ultra-low emission technology.

The largest aircraft manufacturers, collaborating with startups and government agencies, is responding with electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems to drastically reduce carbon emissions.

Companies including Rolls Royce, Boeing (in collaboration with NASA and ZeroAvia) are working to determine what combination of innovative technologies will work best to solve the problem or airplane travel emissions.

Rolls Royce

The Rolls Royce ACCEL (Accelerating the Electrification of Flight) program just unveiled the ionBird, a single-engine, propeller airplane it boasts is the world’s fastest electric powered airplane, capable of speeds above 300 mph. The plane is scheduled to fly before this summer.

The ACCEL program is also developing the E-Fan X, a hybrid-electric propulsion system that could be deployed sooner and could scale to power commercial airliners.

Boeing

Boeing is collaborating with NASA on a project called SUGAR (Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research) to explore three innovations to make air travel a sustainable technology.

Boeing’s first concept is is a new type of wing called the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing (TTBW), which is designed to reduce the amount of fuel needed to propel the plane while increasing its overall performance.

Boeing is developing the hybrid SUGAR Volt, which “uses liquefied natural gas, fuel cells, cryogenically cooled electric motors, advanced battery energy storage, and aft fuselage boundary layer ingestion propulsion for even more potential benefits,” according to their press release.

Boeing projects that these concepts and especially the SUGAR volt plane will be ready by 2040.

Something New

Perhaps the most multi-faceted new aircraft technology is by ZeroAvia, which in combination with several other companies will be testing a plane that can be powered by gas, electric or hydrogen-powered electricity, according to an article in AZoCleanTech.

The company’s hydrogen-fueled plane is up to 50 percent cheaper to fly on flights of 300 to 500 miles flights. Test flights are expected to begin by 2022.

The U.K.’s ‘Net Zero’ Law

The UK in 2019 mandated steep, ongoing carbon emission reductions by all economic sectors, including air travel. These Net Zero goals are motivating broad cooperation by the private sector and government to innovate so that economic growth can continue while eventually stabilizing, and presumably eventually reducing, atmospheric CO2 levels.

Air travel is likely to still be a major source of global carbon emissions in 2050. Even if these new aircraft are flying by then, air travel will account for 12 percent of the global carbon budget, according to an article by the New York Times. Failure to meet those goals could push the air travel portion of the carbon budget to 27 percent.

Regulation and lack thereof

These new zero-emission aircraft will need to be certified as safe to fly the FAA before they are allowed for use in commercial aviation. However, the FAA has no electric or hybrid planes certified at the moment.

Since these technologies are re-inventing the proverbial wheel, the FAA will need to innovate its approval process just as the aircraft industry is innovate their technology.