Environmental Improvements in Aviation
As air travel quickly increases post-COVID, there is an increasing awareness and concern about the amount of pollution created from commercial aircraft. There are currently about 25,000 commercial aircraft worldwide. The growth in aviation is projected to increase the number of aircraft to 35,000 in ten years. Planes are used intensively, with each aircraft airborne for about eight hours every day plus all the time burning fuel while on the ground.
Every new generation of aircraft design provides more efficient travel through using lighter materials and more fuel-efficient engines. While there are several exciting aircraft designs underway, these planes will not go into service for quite a while. New commercial aircraft can take more than ten years to design, build, and gain regulatory approvals. It will then take approximately twenty more years to replace the existing fleet with these new, more efficient aircraft.
Making improvements to the existing fleet of aircraft could provide a much quicker reduction in emissions. There are dozens of middle-market companies developing new products which will reduce the environmental impact of commercial aviation. In this article, we will present several of the most interesting alternative fuel providers.
Biomass-derived jet (biojet) fuel has become a key element in the aviation industry’s strategy to reduce operating costs and environmental impacts. Researchers from the oil-refining industry, the aviation industry, government, biofuel companies, agricultural organizations, and academia are working toward developing commercially viable and sustainable processes that produce long-lasting renewable jet fuels with low production costs and low greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, jet fuels must meet ASTM International specifications and potentially be a 100% drop-in replacement for the current petroleum jet fuel. The combustion characteristics and engine tests demonstrate the benefits of running the aviation gas turbine with biojet fuels.
Sunchem is a Netherlands-based company with operations in Italy and South Africa. Its product is called Solaris - a tobacco seed that contains about 38% oil, with a composition comparable to sunflower oil. It is non-GMO, does not contain nicotine, is non-toxic, is not a food product, has a much higher oil production per hectare than other oil seeds, and adapts to different climates. It has chemical characteristics that qualify for making biojet - a jet-fuel kerosene application.
The product, in a 50/50 biofuel blend, has already been tested by Alitalia with remarkable reductions in CO2 emissions. The company is exploring potential growth paths to increasing production and distribution.
LanzaTech is a U.S.-based company focused on creating technologies to recycle waste carbon emissions into new products. The LanzaJet product is a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) – a kerosene that can be 50/50 combined with Jet-A fuel. The company utilizes ethanol produced from solid waste and from industrial processes and turns it into 90% kerosene jet fuel and 10% diesel. Importantly, this ethanol is not produced from food sources. With no energy used in extracting crude oil from the ground and since the ethanol was already in the carbon cycle, Lanza Jet’s fuel is better for the environment.
In-flight testing has been successful with a variety of commercial aircraft beginning in 2018. LanzaJet’s technology has attracted investment from Royal Dutch Shell, Suncor Energy, Mitsui, and British Airways. LanzaJet is constructing a small refinery in the U.S. which will produce about 10 million gallons of jet fuel by 2023. With the worldwide consumption of jet fuel projected to reach 100 billion gallons per year, more and larger refineries are required to make even a modest environmental impact. https://www.lanzajet.com/
Another focus of development is using alternative energy sources to generate power. Hydrogen is under consideration as the cleanest fuel for future airliners. Airbus is recently rumored to be considering using an A380 to test liquid hydrogen fuel tanks which are required to be kept very cold – at negative 250 degrees centigrade. This is one of several large issues that must be resolved before commercial hydrogen-powered flight becomes a reality. In the interim, smaller hybrid, battery and hydrogen fuel cell applications are in development.
Avio Aero has initiated a number of different projects to produce a hybrid engine to be applicable to the existing fleet of aircraft. The first project, called Falco EVO, is in collaboration with Finmeccanica - Selex ES and aims at developing a hybrid electric engine, intended for remotely piloted aircraft. The system can carry out long-lasting surveillance missions, up to 20 hours. The Falco EVO can install a payload of up to 100 kg, reach a flight altitude of 6,000 meters, and can carry out missions - in line of sight - with an operating range of more than 200 km.
The second project, named HYPSTAIR, from 2013 to 2016, designed a series of hybrid propulsion systems for small aircraft that uses an un-ducted single fan driven by an electric motor. The engine can run using only electricity or in hybrid mode; electricity can be drawn from a battery pack or from a fuel-powered engine. The main benefit of a hybrid engine is reducing the weight of carrying a full pack of batteries.
Working with General Motors, Germany-based Liebherr Aerospace, an on-board aircraft system supplier, is developing hydrogen fuel cell power for aircraft.
According to GM Executive Director of Global Hydrotec Charlie Freese, "The fuel cell can bring in the air you’re flying through, then we take hydrogen, which is stored onboard, and combine it to make power and electricity; we can even make heat.” It can also make water, leading to huge fuel and emissions savings. "A fuel cell is clean and the water product can be used to humidify the airplane or we can capture it and use it to flush toilets and sinks," Freese said. "The average aircraft takes off with two tons of water just to flush the toilet. We can now make water in flight.”
Another possibility is the fuel cells, if small enough, could replace miles of wiring in the plane that currently controls sensors and other operating systems, taking off weight and lowering the cost to build the aircraft, Freese said. “The change from the conventional to a hydrogen technology-based electrical power generation system means major systems modifications on board the aircraft that could result in better, more efficient performance of the plane,“ said Francis Carla, chief technology officer at Liebherr-Aerospace. "This we want to prove and test thoroughly."
A significant challenge to the adoption of alternative fuels is cost. Produced at a small scale, alternative fuels currently cost 50%-100% more per gallon than petroleum sourced Jet-A. To build demand for alternative fuels (which would also encourage investment in increasing supply) governments are considering tax incentives. According to Reuters (July 4, 2021), the EU Commission has recently begun considering a new tax on polluting commercial aviation fuels. Alternative fuels would be exempt from the tax. As planned, tax rates will gradually be increased on petroleum-sourced aviation fuels over the next ten years.
The transition to using alternative fuels is underway in commercial aviation. Between governmental regulation, target taxation, and pressure from travelers, every airline will have to demonstrate steps towards reducing the environmental impact of air travel.
The Aerospace and Defense group and the Energy group at CDI Global help middle-market companies like these strategically achieve their growth plans. Please let us know how we can help you.
William Surman, CDI Global U.S. & Federico Caligaris, CDI Global Italy
Co-Leaders CDI Aerospace & Defense