It’s one of the biggest challenges the world faces as it seeks to move towards a net zero future – how to make aviation greener.
The global commercial aviation industry currently produces between 2-3% of all human-made carbon dioxide emissions and accounts for about 12% of CO2 emissions from all sources of transport.
As a result, the industry will have a key role to play in the transition, not least because, as societies become more prosperous around the world, the demand for air travel is expected to increase sharply.
So the hunt is on to find ways to make air travel less energy consuming.
Today, a decisive step has been taken in this direction as Rolls-Royce has announced that by 2023 all of its Trent engines will have been proven to be compatible with 100% sustainable aviation fuel. The Trent family of engines power approximately 40% of the long-haul aircraft in the world.
Rolls-Royce chief executive Warren East has not disclosed how much it cost to adapt the Trent family.
But he told Sky News: “It’s a question of how much it would cost us not to do it. The reality is that by 2050 we have to be net zero on the planet and aviation has to play its part. role.
“We want to continue supplying engines for long-haul aviation, so that’s what we need to do.”
Rolls previously said that sustainable aviation fuel, which is produced from raw materials such as cooking oil, waste non-palm oil from animals or plants, and solid waste from homes and homes. companies, offers “net CO2 emissions over the life cycle of at least 75% less than conventional jet fuel.”
The big question that airlines and aircraft manufacturers will ask themselves, however, is how the engines will perform when fueled differently.
Mr East said the performance of the engine would not be affected by making it compatible with 100% sustainable aviation fuel.
He said that by 2050, with all of long-haul aviation powered by sustainable aviation fuel, there would have been a shift in the way the product is made.
He added: “It is possible that we can get even better performance from engines with sustainable aviation fuel.”
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Other questions concern the cost of sustainable aviation fuel. As it stands, the product costs eight times the price of kerosene, while very little is produced. Right now, only 0.05% of the jet fuel used in the world is sustainable, making it more difficult to access even if airlines were in the mood to buy it.
This should change over time. Royal Dutch Shell, which today partnered with Rolls and Airbus to call for closer collaboration in the aviation industry and with governments to enable the transition from long-haul aviation to net zero, recently committed to increasing production to two million tonnes of sustainable aviation fuel each year by 2025. This is more than 10 times the total amount of sustainable aviation fuel produced in the world today.
Mr East said that while purchasing sustainable aviation fuel is a problem for airlines, it’s not just the oil and gas companies’ responsibility to meet demand or reduce costs.
He added: “[There are] things we can do in the industry, supplying the motors. Improved the efficiency of the Step function, so that our XWB engine, for example on the A350s today, is significantly more efficient than the older engines.
“Our next-gen motor that will hopefully fly in the mid-1930s, our ultra-fan motor, will be around 25% more efficient than the original Trent motor – so we can do something about efficiency. .
“And then you have huge cost reduction potential in scaling up sustainable aviation fuels.
“Today, less than 1% of the world’s fuel is sustainable aviation fuel. By 2030, the industry has signed up to 10%, which means a 400-fold increase in the volume of aviation that will be in use by then – and that some kind of scaling will no doubt have positive economic effects.
Sabine Klauke, Technical Director of Airbus, one of Rolls’ main customers, accompanied Mr. East to today’s event in Derby. All of its planes can currently run on blends of up to 50% sustainable aviation fuels, and she said the company is working closely with our partners to accelerate that rate to 100% by 2030.
She told Sky News: “At Airbus, we have big ambitions… with our zero-emission program of bringing two zero-emission planes into service by 2035. But there is no one-size-fits-all solution to decarbonization. , and we really need all the different technologies. to gather.”
Airbus doesn’t just put all its eggs in one basket, labeled sustainable aviation fuel. The manufacturer is also working a lot on hydrogen as a means of propulsion, unlike its rival Boeing, which seems more focused on sustainable aviation fuel. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury has previously said he only favors the latter as a short-term alternative to hydrogen.
It is clear, however, that sustainable aviation fuel will do the heavy lifting as the aviation industry seeks to reduce carbon emissions by the end of this decade.
Rolls’ announcement today follows a series of recent developments that have raised hopes for the company after a brutal period in which its profits were wiped out by the fall in air travel as a result. of the pandemic.
It’s last month won $ 2.6 billion (£ 1.9 billion) US Air Force contract awarded to Rolls to replace the engines of its fleet of Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bombers. It is also hoped that the recent AUKUS security pact between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, under which the latter two will share nuclear technology to help power the submarines of the former, may pay off for Rolls.
Mr East said: “We have supplied the [UK’s] nuclear fleet over the past six decades and so there is clearly a share of expertise that is unique to the UK – but it’s really up to governments to decide who does what in terms of implementing this deal. “
At least as important a prize, potentially, would be the government’s approval of small modular reactors to help the UK produce zero-carbon energy.
Mr East added: “We absolutely expect to see something towards the end of the decade.”
Investors certainly hope so. Just as, presumably, the government will as it seeks to lead the UK towards a net zero future.