Climate change has arguably never been higher on both the political agenda and within the public consciousness. From flooding in Germany, to wildfires in Siberia and countless other extreme weather events, the evidence of its impact is stark.
So November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) has all eyes fixed on its outcomes. Ahead of the conference, the university is showcasing some of our leading research in the field of climate change.
Words: Chris Hickman
Dame Jessica Corner, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Knowledge Exchange, explains why this is such a critical moment and introduces some of our research:
“As the impacts of climate change around the globe become ever clearer, there has perhaps never been a more critical moment in our struggle to avert catastrophe. The decisions that world leaders make in Glasgow in November will shape the future of life on this planet.
“It’s therefore never been more important that those leaders are supported with access to the best in current research and knowledge about the technologies, tools and policies on both adapting to and mitigating global warming. With the eyes of the world on the UK, British universities need to rise to this challenge and shine light on this most complex of policy challenges.
“I’m proud that Nottingham’s academic experts are playing their part in this vital moment in history. Our research offers invaluable insight to policy makers across a vast range of fields, not least of which is the challenge of eliminating aviation’s huge carbon footprint and delivering sustainable travel for the future.
“The challenge is enormous, but a cleaner, greener world is possible. I hope these stories of the work being done in Nottingham to achieve it will inspire you and renew your hope for our shared future.”
A passport to all-electric aircraft
Tackling climate change demands a radical transformation of aviation technology. This means tackling a series of discrete technological challenges such as battery development, high voltage high power electrical systems, sourcing new materials, and doing so at pace because the clock is ticking.
In conventional aircraft power is generated by the engines from fossil fuel; the bulk is used for propulsion and the remainder is transformed to hydraulic, pneumatic, mechanical and electrical power to supply different loads on-board – creating around 12% of all carbon dioxide emissions from transport sources.
Hybrid and all-electric aircraft are seen as the most ecological solution for generating, distributing and utilising electric power on-board for higher performance, efficiency and subsequent environmental benefits. Companies including Ampaire, Heart Aerospace and ZeroAvia are already designing aircraft - some already fly, some remain on the drawing board.
In such a complex landscape it would be easy for an absence of coordination to slow things down, because innovations are not compatible, because certain problems are being examined many times over whereas others are not being explored, or because regulatory and safety challenges are not being anticipated.
The University of Nottingham is a founding member of Solutions for Aircraft Electrification Leadership (SAEL), a world class partnership of engineers and researchers from industry, academia and regulation. The group is creating an open source technology framework to coordinate and integrate research, innovations and standards to bring sustainable aviation closer - accessible to the aerospace industry, ranging from academia, industry, regulatory bodies and policymakers worldwide.
It helps spot and address the critical challenges, invest in the most promising enabling technology approaches and find the best intersections of expertise. Without such a high level multidisciplinary and global approach, the future of sustainable flights is not likely to happen.
As engineers, scientists and academics, we are accustomed to working in our own spheres and protecting the new knowledge and products we develop. This is quite understandable and logical because no one wants to do the hard work and then see our work copied and used by others without proper referencing or acknowledgement of monetary reward.
Yet I have personally witnessed the much deeper motivation and satisfaction that can come when we cooperate and share our expertise and knowledge while working together towards a loftier common goal.
Dr Sharmila Sumsurooah is a senior research fellow
The emissions mission
The European Union funded Clean Sky 2 programme is one of the largest ever dedicated to reducing aircraft emissions – and the university is one of its key higher education partners, delivering 26 research projects worth over €50 million.
I was recruited by the university’s Institute for Aerospace Technology (IAT) in 2014 to coordinate our Clean Sky 2 activities. The IAT is the place where we pull together over 50 academic experts and over 300 researchers to address the challenges of aviation.
My role is to connect, catalyse and integrate research work into high-quality projects, often with industry turning the results into real technology immersed into aircraft we fly on. Through our research we have developed:
- New insights into power electronics, motors and drives. While electric and hybrid cars are now commonplace, our work is paving the way for the same revolution in air travel.
- New technologies to help us understand what is happening inside an aircraft engine gearbox. If we understand this better we can design new gearboxes which use less oil and allow the engine to burn less fuel.
- New technologies to cost effectively manufacture highly technologically advanced wings –meaning less energy is wasted producing the best quality metals and composites.
Ultimately this is about reducing the weight and increasing the safety and performance of the aircraft. Every kg of weight we put on an aircraft is another kg to carry, another 5kg of fuel to burn to keep the aircraft in the air and propel it to its destination – another kg of fuel to carry to the airport, and ultimately, more CO2 pumped into the atmosphere. Similarly, every ounce of performance we can get out of the technology on the aircraft means the aircraft can go further and burn less fuel.
The work being undertaken is transforming the aircraft of tomorrow to be cleaner, leaner and greener.
Dr Hitendra Hirani is EU programme manager in the Faculty of Engineering