COP26: securing net zero aviation
Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time and to safeguard the future of life on our planet, aviation must play its part in drastically reducing carbon emissions. The UK was the first major aviation sector in the world to commit to net zero CO₂ by 2050, and underlined this pledge with interim decarbonisation targets of at least 15% by 2030 and 40% by 2040. Yet commercial aircraft in the sky are predicted to double in the next 20 years, with emissions soaring in their wake, and by 2050 10 billion passengers will fly every year.
To achieve such ambitious targets and deliver net zero aviation will take concerted and coordinated action, taking in clean aircraft technologies and propulsion systems, sustainable aviation fuels, advances in materials, manufacturing and aircraft maintenance and more efficient airspace and airport operations.
Our researchers have sector-leading strengths in these fields. In our Institute for Aerospace Technology alone, we bring together more than 350 scientists and engineers, creating, testing and demonstrating novel technologies in sector-leading facilities.
Our new Power Electronics and Machines Centre has an unrivalled 20 megawatt demonstration capacity, giving its £40m UK Electrification of Aerospace Propulsion Facility a world-leading capability for testing electric components and drive systems for short-medium range aircraft.
With the support of partners including Boeing, Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Leonardo, our ambition is to make the East Midlands the world’s foremost location for low-carbon aerospace innovation.
Such investments will accelerate progress towards net zero aviation, as well as stimulating the UK economy. By March 2024, we estimate that £140m worth of industrial work will align with the aerospace propulsion facility, strengthening the world’s largest regional aviation supply-chain cluster and associated high-skilled jobs, and reinforcing the UK’s and the East Midlands’ reputation as the go-to place for the development of electrification technologies for future aerospace platforms.
Integrating green technologies
Electrification will be at the core of future flight, but to deliver net zero aviation we must integrate other green technologies and propulsion systems. Long haul and transcontinental flight will be led by hybrid electric aircraft, bringing together smart electrical systems, sustainable energy sources and engines running on new liquid biofuels.
Hydrogen will feature in this energy mix, with researchers from our Propulsion Futures Beacon pursuing the holy grail of how to store this power source at viable temperatures and volumes.
We are pioneering research into sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), which can run through current jet engines. Our Green Chemicals Beacon is investigating SAFs from biomass (plant materials such as seaweed), while colleagues at the UKRI BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre are engineering bacteria to recycle carbon waste and produce sustainable fuels. Such a process has powered a Virgin Atlantic jet.
A revolution in short-haul and regional flight is already under way – as part of the Ampaire consortium, we are using hybrid electric passenger flights in the southwest of England to model and develop an optimised electric aviation ecosystem, including aircraft, airports, power distribution and storage. And by 2025 the Airlander 10, a hybrid airship featuring an electric power system developed by our Power Electronics, Machines and Control Research Group and Collins Aerospace, will come into service as the world’s longest aircraft.
An innovation hub
Advances in manufacturing will further drive progress towards net zero aviation. Our ambition is to secure our region at the nexus of an innovation network, connecting fundamental science to applied aviation research that will have real impact. We are leading a UKRI Made Smarter-funded £5m research centre, with partners including Airbus, BAE Systems and Siemens, which will pioneer a new class of connected smart factories that will accelerate local, sustainable, agile and cost-effective production. With the East Midlands Development Corporation we are supporting bold plans for a zero carbon industrial cluster, including a global research centre to develop zero emissions technologies including electrification, energy storage and hydrogen propulsion.
Step by step
Progress towards net zero is also measured in incremental steps. Our experts are raising the performance of gas turbine engines and transmission systems – a 0.1% increase in jet energy efficiency translates in many millions of tonnes reduction in CO₂ emissions across the world’s aviation fleets. Cutting down maintenance times saves fuel; our computer scientists are helping airport and airline operators optimise operations, from taxiing on the ground to flightpaths. Every saved kilogramme in the weight of aircraft, every fractional improvement in aerodynamics or wing technology, further saves fuel and so cuts CO₂ emissions.
An aircraft is the perfect example of a complex, integrated system. In Nottingham our research takes in every facet of flight and our interdisciplinary researchers excel in creating and demonstrating these technologies. Working with our partners, our innovations do truly take flight.
But it is vital that our discoveries form part of a strategic flightpath towards net zero aviation.
We are a leading partner in Clean Sky 2, Europe’s largest ever aviation research programme, and our €56m budget is the biggest of any university. As a member of the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute, we are helping to map out the government-backed FlyZero commitment to zero-carbon emission commercial air travel by 2030. The University of Nottingham is a founding member of Solutions for Aircraft Electrification Leadership, a world-class partnership of engineers and researchers from industry, academia and regulation, which will further address the critical challenges facing us in achieving net zero aviation. We are meanwhile influencing global standards in aviation, which is significantly improving collaboration across the industry.
COP26 is an opportunity for our scientists and engineers to come together with aviation companies and policy makers to find solutions to a global crisis of great urgency. I am proud that our researchers remain defiant and dedicated in the face of this complex challenge, and that the University of Nottingham, through innovation and collaboration, is in the vanguard as the UK takes a global lead in securing net zero aviation.
Chris Gerada is Professor of Electrical Machines and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Industrial Strategy, Business Engagement and Impact