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Environment

COP26: innovating electric aircraft for greener global transport

Conventional aviation, relying on fossil fuels for power, is responsible for 12% of carbon dioxide emissions from all transport sources. The negative environmental impact is therefore considerable. However, Europe’s vision for aviation, Flightpath 2050, aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 75%, and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 90%, per passenger kilometre by 2050. Hybrid and ‘all electric’ aircraft are seen as the most promising solution to date, as generating, distributing and utilising electric power on-board not only has a greatly reduced environmental impact, but also improves efficiency and performance. A move towards aircraft electrification could therefore be critical in order to meet climate objectives – and there is a clear urgency to do so.

Tackling climate change thus demands a radical transformation of aviation technology. This means confronting and overcoming a series of technological challenges - and doing so at pace, because the clock is ticking. But responding to each challenge in isolation is not enough. Aircraft are complex systems, in which each component has to work as part of a whole. Furthermore, there are multiple players across industry, regulation and academia, each vitally important to finding solutions.

In such a complex landscape it would be easy for an absence of coordination to slow things down because innovations are incompatible, because certain problems are being over-examined while others are not being explored at all, or because regulatory and safety challenges are not being anticipated.

Solutions for Aircraft Electrification Leadership (SAEL), a world class partnership of engineers and researchers from industry, academia and regulation, seeks to address this challenge by creating an open technology framework to coordinate and integrate research, innovations and standards to bring sustainable aviation closer. Conceived around a dinner table in Hamburg in 2018 by a core team of four of us who meet regularly, SAEL has defined a path to lead the shift from conventional to green aviation. Some of the objectives have already been met through workshops which bought together over 100 world leaders in aerospace from academia, industry and regulation.

The next step of SAEL is to create an online open access platform for the technology framework, which will be kept live as the latest and constantly evolving technologies through independent or SAEL-funded projects are linked to it.

SAEL will also set up project partnerships and create joint international R&D projects to accelerate development of the critical technology solutions required, identifying the research or regulatory priorities that need to be resolved urgently to make green flight a reality. The best-in-class R&D solutions will be translated into the SAEL case scenario which is to design and fly an open-source large passenger hybrid electric airplane.

SAEL is truly pushing the boundaries of innovation, with a world class team that unites a global network of the brightest and best researchers from different areas of aerospace. Without such a high level multidisciplinary and global approach, the future of sustainable flights is not likely to happen. Crucially, the open-source nature of the partnership will encourage development of global cooperation across different sectors of aviation. This calls to the core motivation of every expert and scientist in the world who wants to contribute to the future of a sustainable world - and become an integral part of the solution.

"This calls to the core motivation of every expert and scientist in the world who wants to contribute to the future of a sustainable world - and become an integral part of the solution."
Dr Sharmila Sumsurooah

Importantly, SAEL will also have a strong impact on policy by supporting policymakers in a number of ways. Firstly, a global network of the brightest and best researchers will help policymakers identify the right experts. Secondly, it will identify the critical challenges which could target research investment decisions, and which will accelerate innovations to solve a major policy problem. Finally, an analytical decision-making framework will support ambitions like Jet Zero, the UK Government’s strategy to reach net zero aviation by 2050.

Policies are to be made to encourage cooperation on a global level, between different sectors of the aviation industry, ranging from academia, industry, regulatory bodies and policy makers, and between private and public companies, encouraging experts all over the world and different sectors to join forces to solve a common problem that affects the whole of humanity – climate change.

Sharmila Sumsurooah

Dr Sharmila Sumsurooah is a senior research fellow for the Power electronics and machines Control (PEMC) group.

SAEL Core Team

Dr Sharmila Sumsurooah, Senior Research Fellow, University of Nottingham

Oliver Piecyk, Independent Aerospace Consultant

Dr Tim Coombs, Senior Lecturer, University of Cambridge/ Magnifye Ltd

Rodney Mack, Senior Director, Business Development, CRANE Aerospace & Electronics

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