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Decarbonising Aviation

August 23, 2020
Harold Goodwin
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For too long the aviation industry has been told that there is no alternative. TINA has been dominant. That is changing. There is an alternative. 

At WTM London on November 11th 2020 the panel on Decarbonising Aviation is discussing the use of hydrogen to fuel aircraft. For the background read.

WTM hosted a symposium on decarbonising aviation with presentations from leading research scientists, engineers and policymakers on the zero-carbon fuels which are now within our reach. Aviation is not the problem. The problem is the dirty fuel they burn. The transition to clean fuels needs to begin now. Brief reports of the contributions from each of the speakers can be read here and videos of their presentations are here.


Fueling the Future is business aviation's perspective on how carbon-neutral growth can be achieved from 2020 with the objective of reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 20o50 relative to 2005. This is much less than radical approach.

2019 04 30 The aviation industry is our sector’s Achilles’ heel

2020 02 04 Carbon Offsetting: Too good to be true?

2020 08 06 Rebuilding air transport with a zero-carbon future in the post-Covid green recovery Green Air Online

2020 07 30 Hydrogen will power the next generation of planes

Novel and disruptive aircraft, aero-engine and systems innovations in combination with hydrogen technologies can help to reduce the global warming effect of flying by 50 to 90%.  On June 22 an independent study funded by the European Commission concluded 'that hydrogen – as a primary energy source for propulsion, either for fuel cells, direct burn in thermal (gas turbine) engines or as a building block for synthetic liquid fuels – could feasibly power aircraft with entry into service by 2035 for short-range aircraft. Costing less than €18 [$20] extra per person on a short-range flight, and reducing climate impact by 50 to 90%, hydrogen could play a central role in the future mix of aircraft and propulsion technologies.'  Bart Biebuyck, Executive Director of Fuel Cells & Hydrogen 2 Joint Undertaking said "The cost of producing clean hydrogen came down in recent years thanks to cheaper renewable electricity and bigger and cheaper production technology. At the same time, fuel cell performance in terms of durability, capacity and cost has made big steps forward. This combination has now made it possible to look to such solutions for decarbonisation of the aviation industry and the results of the study are clear on the huge potential of hydrogen in aviation. The hydrogen and fuel cell sector is ready to work hand in hand with the aviation industry to design, test and produce the required components and make zero-emission aviation an everyday reality,”  more      Report

2020 07 22 Prime Minister Boris Johnson announces £350 million is being made available to cut emissions in heavy industry and drive economic recovery from coronavirus. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "Th Jet Zero Council is a huge step forward in making change – as we push forward with innovative technologies such as sustainable fuels and eventually fully electric planes, we will achieve guilt-free flying and boost sustainability for years to come."
Chaired by the Transport and Business Secretaries, today’s first-ever Jet Zero council meeting will discuss how to decarbonise the aviation sector while supporting its growth and strengthening the UK’s position as a world leader in the sector. // The members will look at how to work across their sectors to achieve these goals, including through brand new aircraft and engine technologies. These could include using new synthetic and sustainable aviation fuels as a clean substitute for fossil jet fuel, and eventually the development of electric planes."

2020 07 21 Airbus hopes to bring a zero-emissions commercial airliner to market in the early 2030s and says key technology decisions must be made in the next five years. Glenn Llewellyn  “We believe we need to position the aviation industry to be powered by renewable energy, and hydrogen is a very good surrogate for allowing us to do that.” We believe that it is a highly scalable sustainable aviation fuel,” he said, and that such synthetic fuels would not compete against hydrogen. Currently, hydrogen looks promising for aircraft up to 200 passengers, but SAF or power-to-liquid fuels might prove to be better options for larger aircraft, he said. Riona Armesmith, chief project engineer for hybrid-electric propulsion for Rolls-Royce, agreed that in the short term “we’ve absolutely demonstrated” that the industry can use SAF immediately. “Hydrogen needs a bit more work” for use in gas turbines, but it is something Rolls-Royce is examining, along with electric. “It would be an easy to thing to say it is an either-or. It’s not; It’s both,” Armesmith said, adding the industry needs to support such efforts to push them forward "rather than just waiting to see what happens.” AINonline

In July the European Commission launched its Hydrogen Strategy. As Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission said “What you need for hydrogen to be a successful energy source and storage facility in the future: you need the production to be within the price range, you need transport and storage facilities, and you need the market,” he went on “With our strategy, we want to stimulate all three.” Aviation Week earlier in July concluded that “from 2030 onward to 2050, renewable hydrogen production technologies should reach maturity, the strategy says. Hydrogen and hydrogen-derived synthetic fuels should penetrate more widely into hard-to-decarbonise sectors including aviation and shipping." more

2020 07 18 "There are two ways to generate hydrogen. “Blue hydrogen” is made from natural gas and, though not carbon-free, it is cleaner than most fuels now in use. “Green hydrogen” is made by turning surplus energy produced by wind and sunshine at times of low demand into a fuel that can be stored and transported. // Britain is enormously well-placed in both regards. We have gas pipelines already in place. We have a honeycomb of caves in which hydrogen can be stored. We have vast wind farms in the North Sea where gales come often but unpredictably. Most important, we have the requisite engineering skills.

2020 07 17 Why aviation should burn hydrogen, not time, to repair reputation. Flight International Opinion. 
There is no magic technology bullet, but the one approach that looks viable is hydrogen – to power fuel cells or for direct combustion in gas turbines. The necessary timescale is frighteningly short – barely 15 years on the probably-optimistic assumption that zero-carbon aviation from 2050 is soon enough to avert climate breakdown – and there’s no guarantee of technical success or a cost-effective outcome. ... we cannot afford the luxury of waiting until good economic times return to barter over who pays. // ... the present system of carrying on as usual while trying to shave a couple of per cent off fuel burn and throwing a little money at headline-grabbing initiatives is greenwashing while the world burns.

2020 07 15 "the world’s biggest producer of polymer membrane (PEM) electrolysers able to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen fast enough to buttress wind and solar, and at the necessary pressure, happens to be a British firm: ITM Power in Sheffield Its share price has risen by 1,500pc in fifteen months, while unreformed oil majors continue their death spiral." "Hydrogen will start to displace diesel in long-haul lorries, buses, and trains in the mid 2020s, using existing fuel cell technology. It will be blended with natural gas for the heating of buildings up to a limit of around 20pc using existing infrastructure. This is very low-hanging fruit on the path to net-zero, though it needs a change in UK law." "It will be turned into synthetic fuels for ships and aircraft (yes, we can all keep flying)." "Almost no country is better placed to seize the initiative on clean hydrogen yet the Government has so far been tentative. It is spending £70 million on a clutch of hydrogen schemes, including Europe’s first big hydrogen plants to heat homes. But this is small beer compared to Japan or China, where Wuhan has been designated as the first ‘hydrogen city’ by 2025. The UK plans have been upstaged by Brussels. " Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Daily Telegraph

Arctic Circle temperatures have hit new highs reaching a scorching 38C (100F) in Verkhoyansk, a Siberian town. The Arctic is believed to be warming twice as fast as the global average. We cannot self isolate from climate change. Some airlines, for example, KLM, have responded to challenge but most want to carry on with business as usual. In the UK Alok Sharma the government minister responsible for business and climate change said earlier this month that "COP26 can be a moment where the world unites behind a fairer, greener recovery from the effects of Covid-19. A recovery which delivers for both our people and our planet.” He was launching the COP 26 Race to Zero UNFCC campaign.

The UK government has launched a Jet Zero Council:, a new collaborative initiative to decarbonise aviation;  a coalition of Ministers, businesses, trade bodies and environmental groups who will collaboratively work to align the aviation sector with the 2050 net-zero target. The UK Sustainable Aviation Coalition recently published a roadmap to achieve net-zero. Their roadmap focuses on fuel from waste, gives a low priority to electric aircraft and insists that the UK’s aviation sector can grow by 70% over the next three decades without breaching climate targets – the UK Committee on Climate Change rejected this plan for business as usual.

08 July European Commission’s Hydrogen Strategy
As part of the EU's Green Deal, there are plans to boost production of clean hydrogen as a feedstock, a fuel or as energy carrier and storage. The European Clean Hydrogen Alliance will help build up a robust pipeline of investments. By 2030 the expectation is that renewable hydrogen will be deployed at a large scale across all hard-to-decarbonise sectors. This obviously includes aviation.  Download “What you need for hydrogen to be a successful energy source and storage facility in the future: you need the production to be within the price range, you need transport and storage facilities and you need the market,” said Frans Timmermans, executive vice president of the European Commission “With our strategy we want to stimulate all three.”

01 July Airlines’ golden (corona) life jacket makes a mockery of the green recovery  Carbon Market Watch
despite pledges to make the COVID19 recovery green, EU governments are pouring public money into saving airlines – mostly without any environmental conditions. To date, they have handed out close to 30 billion euros in bailouts. The US has earmarked 50 billion for its airlines.  France and Austria have both proposed some modest climate conditions to their bailout packages, but these will still need to be evolved into binding rules.
There is no denying that airlines are facing difficult times. But the industry is also shamelessly exploiting the health crisis to push against a diverse range of policies, including climate regulations, with the stated objective of paying even less into government coffers. Some, such as Alitalia or Boeing, are using the pandemic to get government support to solve financial troubles that pre-date the crisis. Download

06 June 2020 French government scheme announced funding for a carbon-neutral plane by 2035. Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said “There is a lower level of demand so we need less planes, so let’s retire the old planes, the ones which are burning a lot of fuel and raising a lot of CO2 and support the faster transition to new planes by a support scheme,” it sets the industry a target of launching a carbon-neutral successor to the market-leading A320 by 2035, demonstrating it by 2028. The plan suggests either developing engines that can run completely on biofuels and betting on hydrogen as a zero-emission fuel.  The European Commission is currently looking into how to tax jet fuel, which is exempted from charges, as part of its attempts to update the bloc’s Energy Taxation Directive. more

Carbon Engineering; founded more than a decade ago with the mission to develop and commercialize affordable and industrially scalable air capture technology. Direct Air Capture can help the world decarbonize and achieve critical net-zero targets by producing clean transportation fuels, and large-scale carbon removal.

Further Resources

2020 06 25 Hydrogen-powered aviation: preparing for take-off!  Video
2020 06 25 Hydrogen-powered aviation McKinsey Report
2020 06 24 PV Magazine  Affordable hydrogen-fueled flight possible in 2035
2020 06 17 WTM & Breda University Decarbonising Aviation Report  Video presentations 
2020 06 12  Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced the Jet Zero Council tasked to "ensure that zero-carbon transatlantic passenger flights are possible “within a generation”. The UK Sustainable Aviation Coalition recently published a roadmap for the net-zero transition, for example. The plan drew criticism for centring heavily on developing sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), deprioritising electric aircraft and insisting that the UK’s aviation sector can grow by 70% over the next three decades without breaching climate targets – which the Committee on Climate Change has rubbished. more
2020 05 13  McKinsey How airlines can chart a path to zero-carbon flying

7 Jan 2020 Shell Aviation and World Energy announced a collaboration to develop a scalable supply of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). The SAF is produced by World Energy at its refinery in Paramount, California, from a feedstock of agricultural waste fats and oils. This CARB-certified Low Carbon Fuel and RSB-certified fuel meets strict sustainability standards and is blended with conventional jet fuel at a ratio of up to 30%, resulting in a fuel that has significantly lower lifecycle carbon emissions. In general, lifecycle carbon emissions from SAF can be at least 80% lower than conventional jet fuel.3 SAF is supplied to airports through existing airport infrastructure and can be used by airlines without requiring technical modification to their current fleets. more

2019 11 22 Australia's National Hydrogen Strategy launched

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