Opinion: Seize The Day On Decarbonizing Commercial Aircraft
In September, I had the distinct privilege of visiting NASA for the first time—an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. Seeing the Apollo 11 spacesuit in the lobby is a reminder of the heroic efforts NASA led to redefine the possible, making good on then-President John F. Kennedy’s famous challenge to safely deliver mankind to the Moon and back before the end of the 1960s.
The commercial aviation industry today similarly stands at a point of inflection. Collectively, we have committed to the goal of decarbonizing commercial flight by 2050, even as we work to develop a clear path to realizing that ambition. In embracing this challenge, we cast our lot with the heroes and pioneers whose vision made flight possible, enabling billions of people to travel around the globe, spurring commerce and prosperity through human connection.
As with the Apollo program, bold action is required. Incrementalism and marketing hype won’t cut it. We need a vast, collective effort to develop and mature a range of capabilities and technologies that will dramatically accelerate our progress. Unlike Apollo, our efforts also must meet an economic test: The solutions must be practical enough—and affordable enough—to enable our industry to continue to grow. It is a significant challenge.
At GE Aviation, we are fully committed to decarbonization. As a company, GE has embraced the goal of being carbon-neutral in our own operations by 2030 and announced an ambition to be a net-zero company by 2050, including emissions from our sold products.
We are deploying our most creative and experienced technologists to drive progress across multiple fronts. This includes advancing our own technology programs and furthering the industry’s efforts with alternative fuels. We are building on more than a decade of experience with sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) to lead the effort to define standards for 100% SAF and working with our colleagues at GE Research and GE Power to harness their expertise with hydrogen fuels. Our GE Digital colleagues are developing and deploying tools that enable airlines to identify new operational efficiencies.
Earlier this year, along with our partner Safran, we launched the CFM RISE demonstration program, targeting at least 20% better fuel efficiency compared to today’s engines, the largest single step we have ever taken. By year-end, the program will include 1,000 GE Aviation and Safran engineers, and the development road map includes more than 300 component, module and engine tests. Ground and flight demonstrations are planned to occur in the middle of this decade, and engines incorporating RISE technologies should enter service in the 2030s.
RISE, which stands for Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engines, is focused on three key technology pillars aimed at increasing both propulsive and thermal efficiency: advanced architectures, advanced compact core technologies and hybrid electrification. Coupled with SAF and hydrogen, the RISE technologies offer a path to zero-emission flight.
The open-fan architecture of RISE draws on decades of development work across both GE Aviation and Safran that will enable dramatic increases in propul-sive efficiency with a single-stage, variable-pitch fan that has roots in our geared Quiet Clean Short-Haul Experimental Engine program developed with NASA in the 1970s, the GE36 open-rotor engine developed in the 1980s and Safran’s open-rotor demonstrator developed and demonstrated in 2018 as part of the European Commission’s Clean Sky efforts.
The fan will be driven by an innovative compact core that will include advanced technologies such as ceramic matrix composites, advanced thermal management and hybrid-electric technology, which we have been actively developing for more than a decade, including high-altitude testing with NASA and development of power generation, conversion and control technology at our Electrical Power Integrated Systems Center in Dayton, Ohio.
Of course, no single technology or company can tackle this challenge alone. I applaud public policy that aids the development of breakthrough technologies and supports the development of alternative fuels, including the initiatives announced by the Biden administration in September to spur production of 3 billion gal. of SAF per year by 2030 while also investing in research and development efforts through both NASA and the FAA.
Apollo stands as a clear reminder of the power of a bold vision coupled with collective effort and determination. Decarbonizing flight is our industry’s moonshot. Coordinated global action to limit climate change is vital for the health of our planet and our shared communities. Our history of conquering great challenges gives me confidence that, together, we will rise to the moment—because the world works better when it flies.
John Slattery is president and CEO of GE Aviation. He is based in Cincinnati.