Someone taking a return flight from London to New York generates about the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year.
For good reason, the environmental impact of aviation has become headline news, and is something that has captured public attention.
Direct emissions from aviation are believed to account for about 3 per cent of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 2 per cent of global emissions. The EU’s Flightpath 2050 Vision for Aviation has set a goal of a 75 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre and a 90 per cent reduction in NOx emissions. So what can be done to reduce harmful emissions produced by aviation? Fortunately, a number of technological solutions are in the pipeline that will hopefully help us all reduce our carbon footprint.
Environmental damage is primarily caused by aircraft burning fossil fuel high in the atmosphere. The use of biofuels instead of conventional jet fuel is considered a means for the aviation industry to reduce its environmental impact. Biofuels are artificially produced from biomass, rather than relying on the geological processes through which fossil fuels are created. This means that they can be made from sustainable sources. Some airlines have already started to experiment with sustainable biofuel on commercial flights. Although there are a number of technical problems to overcome, biofuels provide a highly promising route to the aviation industry reducing its carbon footprint.
While improvements to the gas turbine engines used to power passenger aircraft have led to significant reductions in the amount of fuel they burn, there is a limit to how far this can go toward providing cleaner aircraft. As these engines rely on the combustion of fossil fuel they will always pose environmental problems.
An alternative would be to move towards electrically powered aircraft. This however presents significant technological challenges. The weight of batteries and the cooling equipment they require is a huge problem when they need to be lifted off the ground. While there have been some examples of fully electrically powered aircraft, a fully electric commercial passenger flight is currently out of reach.
A more promising approach is the use of hybrid technology. A bit like in a hybrid car, this combines a conventional gas turbine engine with an electric motor. One example of this is the E-fan X project currently being worked on by Airbus in partnership with Siemens and Rolls-Royce. This ambitious project aims to develop a flight demonstrator that has a hybrid electric propulsion system. One of the engines of an existing four-engine aircraft will be replaced with an electric motor driven fan, with an extra conventional engine at the rear of the aircraft powering a generator. The extra engine powering the generator will run on jet fuel, and provide power for the electric motor via the generator. Any excess energy can be stored in batteries and used during take-off and landing.
Smaller start-up companies have made significant advances towards hybrid electric aircraft. Los Angeles based company Ampaire moved the aviation industry a major step forward with the test flight of the Ampaire 337. This is the highest-capacity hybrid-electric aircraft to have been flown. The company have targeted an ambitious path from test flight to commercial operations by 2021.
With the level of financial investment in complex engineering projects like hybrid electric aircraft it is vital to have suitable IP protection. For large complex projects this is likely to include extensive patent portfolios covering both the core technology and any other subsidiary developments. Where research and development is done as part of a collaboration it is import to ensure that agreements are in place agreeing on the ownership of any IP that is generated.
A number of technological solutions are in the pipeline that will hopefully help us all reduce our carbon footprint.