With COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference, coming to a close, it remains to be seen if the significant pledges made by world leaders to secure net-zero by mid-century will be met. If the history of the UN is anything to go by, one can seldom doubt its good intentions; however, its ability to deliver is another matter entirely.
As various world leaders dozed through the multiple presentations, COP26 seemed to offer very few definite solutions. Therefore, I can’t help but wonder whether the aviation manufacturing duopolies are taking any notice. Not least because the aviation sector currently produces 12 percent of CO2 emissions from all transport sources.
For its part, and unlike the car industry, the aviation sector is betting on fuel substitution rather than engine redesign. On the face of it, Sustainable Aviation Fuel, which blends kerosene with renewable hydrocarbon seems to be a decent solution. However, SAF is produced from municipal solid waste, cellulose waste, used cooking oil and Camelina, so harvesting the right waste is a complicated logistical and technical process. In the case of Camelina, an energy crop, this needs to be planted. It’s therefore in direct competition with de-forestation reduction targets, given the vast quantities of SAF aviation fuel that will need to be produced.
The result is a fuel that costs eight times more than current jet fuel, representing a significant variable operating cost that will have to be passed on to the consumer. This threatens to take air travel load factors back to the last century when only the privileged could afford the fares.
Of course, climate change activists might view this path as perfect. More expense would mean fewer travelers, the need for less aircraft and airlines resulting in lower pollution. However, are we really to believe that the Boeing and Airbus leviathans as aircraft manufacturers, and Rolls Royce and General Electric as engine manufacturers, are happy for this to happen? I think not.
Hence, the cynic in me senses an aviation greenwash strategy, whereby the manufacturers can claim they are on a net-zero path when they surely know this is far from the case.
The problem faced by aircraft engine manufacturers is that they are akin to a train running on a single line track. Since the 1940s, jet propulsion has been based on the Frank Whittle gas-turbine design, which relies on a compressor at the front of the engine that is driven by a shaft which is connected to a power turbine at the back of the engine. Energy is provided by combining the compressed air with ignited fuel to make the engine turn and produce thrust.
Of course, technology has radically improved turbine design in terms of efficiency, power and reliability. Still, the fact remains that the shaft is at the core of the engine, and fuel must be injected to produce thrust. It’s therefore doubtful that SAF is the real answer, and the manufacturers doubtless know this; rather SAF arguably represents an easy out in current times for an inevitable failure to meet net-zero in the future, when today’s decision-makers are retired or dead.
It’s acknowledged that Airbus has recently advertised future designs that represent change, but it’s ironic that the big manufacturers seem far more focused on kicking the can down the road and reaping today’s profits from sales and monies from governments to produce aircraft that clearly demonstrate little or no intent to curb current emission rates to net zero by 2050.
The irony is that the “Tesla moment” for the aviation industry is available. Companies such as SonicBlue Aerospace and HyperMach Aerospace industries have designed subsonic and supersonic designs of aircraft engine that dispose of the need for a “Whittle” shaft. Rather, they utilize superconducting magnetic coils that utilize electricity, generated by the engine itself, which drives each turbine stage independently to optimize airflows in the compressing or turbine stage air. The computer modeling sees a radical reduction in fuel consumption with fuel burns of only 20 percent compared to current engines, so these new designs could utilize SAF with little or no increased cost to operator and passenger. Furthermore, the designers, all of whom have track records of engine design with NASA and leading US universities, see fuel dependence as a transient feature, which will be replaced by battery source energy when battery technology catches up with aviation requirements, thereby on track to meet net-zero.
In the meantime, SonicBlue’s Three-stage Superconducting Turbine Core (3STCore) gives an indication of the future and inevitable direction of aviation propulsion. It does, however, represent an inconvenient and capital-intensive truth for aircraft and engine manufacturers.
The development and testing of the engine demand an investment in the region of $600 million over four years; of course, increased investment would shorten this time. However, upon achievement of proving and certifying the new engine, manufacturers will be faced with having to redesign current aircraft models, not least because with fuel burn of 20 percent of current consumption aircraft ranges will be radically increased, plus the speeds the engine can produce even makes supersonic travel an affordable possibility. Therefore, the development of a 3STCore engine represents billions in medium-term redesign costs, which will cause term loss of profits and a radical devaluation of current aircraft designs prior to the long-term returns in a multitrillion-dollar market. This is clearly not a convenient or beneficial route for today’s manufacturing executives and shareholders seeking short term, positive PE ratios.
Recent Federal Aviation Administration data relating to business jets’ future production and fuel consumption predicts an attainment jet fuel burn ratio of 0.927 by 2040. This is against the path to net-zero global target of 0.334, so the actual current emissions for business aircraft alone is almost three times the current COP26 target. This figure is particularly telling, because it is the decision-makers of the world who utilize such aircraft.
There will doubtless come a day when the aviation industry will need to face the net-zero goals desired by the UN and the world’s population, especially because the design technology exists. However, one senses that, for now, an aviation greenwash towards an almost certainly doomed SAF solution is enough to appease the current masses and avoid the inconvenience that an aviation “Tesla” moment will impose on the two duopolies of aircraft and engine manufacturing.
• Howard Leedham MBE is a specialist consultant based in Dubai, he is formerly an airline CEO and holds an air transport pilot’s license.