Sustainable Aviation Initiatives In Spotlight (March 2020)

aircraft in flight
The US Department of Energy is funding efforts to develop propulsion technology for all-electric 150-200-seat aircraft.
Credit: ESAero

The global airline industry continues to introduce initiatives to reduce the impact of aviation on the environment. As governments are setting new carbon emissions targets and making investments into electric propulsion technology, airlines are ramping up sustainability efforts and exploring new biofuel alternatives through partnerships. 

UK carbon roadmap 

The UK’s aerospace industry has committed to delivering net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Sustainable Aviation collective—which includes airlines, OEMs and associations—believes the aerospace industry can deliver growth in passenger numbers of 70% and reduce the industry’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from 30 million tons per year to zero. 

The group has revealed a development roadmap that suggests improvements in aircraft and engine efficiency—as well as developments in more efficient gas-turbine engines, and hybrid electric and fully electric aircraft—could deliver the most impact, reducing CO2 emissions by 23.5 million tons a year, while sustainable aviation fuels could reduce emissions by 30%. 

More efficient use of airspace and more international programs for carbon offsetting, capture, removal and pricing to reduce demand for flying would also deliver significant reductions, the group says.

The roadmap also suggests the UK could become an international leader in the development of sustainable aviation fuels and could produce as much as 1 million tons of such fuel a year by 2035 and as much as 4.5 million tons by 2050. As many as 14 plants could be set up to produce the fuels and be operational by 2050. British Airways is already working with Immingham-based Altalto and Virgin Atlantic is working with LanzaTech to turn household waste into sustainable fuel.

The group says leadership in sustainable fuels will only be possible if the government supports the work with investments, noting that “UK production and deployment of sustainable aviation fuels requires government to develop a coordinated UK vision and strategy for their deployment.”

French fuel goals 

The French Ministry of Transport has set successive targets for the use of sustainable jet fuels in commercial aviation, along with an effort to create a production industry for the fuel within the country.

The roadmap, unveiled by transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, hinges on replacing 2% of fossil fuels with biofuels in 2025 and increasing that proportion to 5% in 2030 and 50% in 2050. Globally, a mere 0.06% of flights were using biofuels in June 2019, the ministry says. The maximum proportion of biofuel in the blend delivered to an aircraft is 50%, under current regulations.

The framework of the roadmap is France’s “national low-carbon strategy,” itself an outcome of the “bill for energy transition and green growth.” Passed in 2019, the bill enshrines France’s 2050 goal for carbon neutrality in law. Aviation, however, is to be the only sector outside the scope of the national strategy for complete decarbonization of energy use.

In 2017, the government created a working group with Airbus, Air France and Safran, as well as energy groups Suez and Total. The roadmap draws from the conclusions of the working group.

The five companies expect incentives for investing, according to a joint statement. 

The companies recommend the use of sustainable resources, especially those “sourced from the circular economy,” and existing airport distribution networks.

US electric propulsion 

ARPA-E, the US Department of Energy’s advanced research projects agency, has launched two programs to develop propulsion technology for all-electric, 150-200-seat narrowbody airliners.

With the stated goal of developing enabling technologies for Boeing 737-class aircraft with net-zero carbon emissions, the programs focus on lightweight, ultra-efficient electric motors, drive electronics and thermal management systems, as well as systems to convert carbon-neutral liquid fuels to electric power for propulsion.

ARPA-E, which was inspired by the Defense Department’s DARPA, says the technologies developed could be applied to the urban air mobility and regional aircraft markets “in the next 5-10 years,” but deployment into the next generation of narrowbody airliners “may take a decade or more.”

The agency expects to make $35 million in funding available for the ASCEND program (Aviation-class Synergistically Cooled Electric Motors with Integrated Drives). The two-phase effort is expected to begin in November and run for up to 42 months.

ARPA-E plans to make $20 million available for the companion REEACH program (Range Extenders for Electric Aviation with Low Carbon and High Efficiency). Expected to run for up to 48 months, this two-phase effort is set to get underway in November.

Forest waste as fuel

Delta Air Lines has signed an offtake agreement with Northwest Advanced Bio-Fuels (NWABF) that could result in deliveries of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) beginning by the end of 2024 if a feasibility study now underway supports construction of a biorefinery in Washington state.

The plant would produce low-carbon SAF from forest residues using the Fischer-Tropsch process, a feedstock-to-biofuel pathway already approved for use in aircraft in blends up to 50% with conventional jet fuel.

If built, the Washington facility would supply SAF for Delta’s operations in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and provide approximately 10% of the airline’s annual jet fuel consumption on the west coast.

The NWABF deal follows the airline’s December 2019 agreement to buy 10 million gallons a year of renewable fuel from Gevo beginning in 2022-23. 

— Thierry Dubois, Anthony Osborne and Graham Warwick contributed to this article.



Tell ATW about your green initiatives

Is your airline, airport, company or organization involved in a sustainability initiative? Let us know the details and it will be included in this regular column highlighting projects that make aviation even greener. 

Send details and images to ATW editor-in-chief Karen Walker at [email protected] 

Thierry Dubois

Thierry Dubois has specialized in aerospace journalism since 1997. An engineer in fluid dynamics from Toulouse-based Enseeiht, he covers the French commercial aviation, defense and space industries. His expertise extends to all things technology in Europe. Thierry is also the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week’s ShowNews. 

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.


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