Zero-carbon flights to be a UK reality within 20 years

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A UK aviation consortium has published a study on the potential of a carbon-free future for UK domestic aviation by 2040 – finding that zero-carbon flights could be a reality in the UK within 20 years.

The consortium consists of three airports (London Heathrow, London City, and Highlands and Islands Airports Limited [HIAL]); three manufacturers (GKN Aerospace, Rolls-Royce, Cranfield Aerospace); three academic institutions (University College London (UCL), Cranfield University and the University of Southampton) supported by management consulting company Deloitte and three airlines (EasyJet, British Airways and Loganair).

Hydrogen-fueled aircraft concepts – developed by GKN Aerospace and Rolls-Royce as part of a trade study – indicate aircraft carrying between 40 and 90 passengers and flying up to 1,400 nautical miles (2,600km) could be deployed across the UK’s domestic route network and into Europe by the end of the next decade. This estimation was based on a model developed by UCL. As a result, London City Airport, whose operation is already heavily focused on regional flying, has the potential to operate an entirely zero-emission domestic network between 2035 and 2040.

Analysis from the University of Southampton suggests that as well as generating a carbon benefit there could also be an overall reduction in noise, benefiting local communities, at airports, such as Inverness and London City that have a high penetration of hydrogen aircraft. By 2040, London Heathrow Airport could welcome 90-seat zero-emission aircraft from airports around the UK, feeding intercontinental travel using the latest, sustainable aviation fuels.

Additionally, the group projected that the first hydrogen-fueled flights, on small, modified aircraft, such as that in development by Cranfield Aerospace, could be possible by 2026, especially between the UK mainland and island communities. Based on modeling by Cranfield University, the period between 2035 and 2040 is when larger airports will need to have the necessary on-site infrastructure in place to handle large quantities of liquid hydrogen, with an annual 68% increase in demand for green hydrogen anticipated.

By 2035, with delivery potentially made via the River Thames, London City Airport may need storage facilities to accommodate a projected annual demand of 1,000 tons of hydrogen. By 2040, with a potential annual demand of 90,000 tons, Heathrow is expected to need to consider on-site hydrogen distribution networks and a potential liquefaction facility to avoid delivery by road.

The report said that, in total, the UK aviation sector might require as much as 300,000 tons of green hydrogen to meet future demand by 2040, which will increase further as more airlines switch to zero-emission aircraft. To achieve this, the consortium recommends a cross-Whitehall, pan-industry review of how aviation fits into the national Hydrogen Strategy. Germany has invested €8bn (US$8bn) in 62 large-scale hydrogen projects, and France has pooled €7.2bn (US$7.23bn) into the development of low-carbon and renewable hydrogen. The consortium believes that the UK can become a world leader in commercial aviation due to its history, the scale of its market and industrial capability.

Jenny Kavanagh, chief strategy officer of Cranfield Aerospace Solutions, said, “The goal of this project was to ascertain whether a carbon-free aviation system could be economically viable in the UK. The answer to that question is yes – it is possible and within our power to achieve. The transition to zero-carbon flying will take time, but it is a process that must start and is starting, now. We in the consortium stand ready to work with government, with industry, and with partners globally from all sectors so that we can meet the clear and present environmental challenge, continue to connect people and places, and position the UK at the vanguard of clean aviation.”

Hervé Morvan, global chief of hydrogen technology at Rolls-Royce, explained, “Project NAPKIN [New Aviation Propulsion Knowledge and Innovation Network]  has outlined some of the conditions under which a hydrogen-fueled regional aviation future could materialize in the UK, supported by sufficient hydrogen availability across the UK geography. Further work is needed to scale this analysis up to larger aircraft, but this study provides a robust analytical methodology and a first good indication for what it takes for hydrogen to come true in aviation, beyond the aerospace technology drive.”

Max Brown, vice president of technology for GKN Aerospace, said, “Project NAPKIN shows the way to a very exciting carbon-free future of flight. At GKN we are determined to make this a reality and we are therefore very proud to be involved in such programs, to not only explore what is possible but do so in a way that is tangible and deliverable. The project has clearly shown the importance of the whole ecosystem working collaboratively to ensure that technology, regulation and infrastructure mature together. Only by doing so can we tackle the challenge facing our industry and make air travel truly sustainable.”

Robert Sinclair, CEO of London City Airport, commented, “When aviation encounters a challenge, it innovates, and Project NAPKIN demonstrates that not only is zero-emission flying possible but that airports like London City will be at the forefront of the transition.”

Matt Prescott, head of carbon strategy at Heathrow Airport, said, “Project NAPKIN marks an important step on the way to ‘jet zero’. It shows that with the right support and market conditions hydrogen-fueled aircraft will unlock net-zero for regional aviation, complementing sustainable aviation fuels for longer flights.”

Inglis Lyon, managing director of Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL), stated, “HIAL is involved in several projects looking to the future of aviation and how it can become more sustainable through the development of low-carbon solutions.”

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As the latest addition to the UKi Media & Events team, Elizabeth combines research skills from her English degree with a keen interest in the meteorological and transportation industries. Having taken the lead in student and startup publications, she has gained experience in editing online and print titles on a wide variety of topics. In her role as Assistant Editor, Elizabeth creates new and topical content on the pioneering technologies in transportation, logistics and meteorology.

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