While aviation accounts for approximately 2.5% of global emissions (pre-pandemic), “air travel dominates a frequent traveller’s individual contribution to climate change”. (Hannah Ritchie, Our World in Data) The real question we have to ask ourselves is: How hopeful can we be in decarbonising travel, without green airplanes? In this article, I will be looking at the development of electric planes and sustainable aviation fuel.
The military MB-E1 was “the first manned electric aircraft to make a successful flight.” (Aviation Innovation Renewable Energy) This happened on 23 October 1973. Almost 5 decades later, what are the prospects of electric aircraft, and what has been done since then?
Recent updates on electric flight
- In 2022, we are expecting the first flight of Alice, “the world’s first all-electric passenger aircraft”. (Jennifer Korn, CNN Business). Alice is developed by Eviation, an Israeli start-up and “will be able to fly for one hour, and about 440 nautical miles”. It is “designed to carry nine passengers and 2 flight crew” in the commuter variant. (Thom Patterson, Flyingmag)
- In September 2021, Rolls Royce announced that the “all-electric ‘Spirit of Innovation’ aircraft” completed its first flight. (Rolls Royce). The Spirit of Innovation took flight for approximately 15 minutes and currently holds the title for world’s fastest all-electric aircraft, reaching a top speed of 555.9km/h (Asian Aviation)
- In December 2020, “German aviation start-up Volocopter announced its commitment to launch air taxi services in Singapore” (Straits Times). “Volocopter is the only electric vertical take-off and landing developer that has a family of electrically powered aircraft” (Aaron Raj, TechWireAsia)
- In October 2020, Ampaire, electric propulsion systems developer, announced that it “achieved its longest flight with the Cessna 337 Skymaster that it has converted to hybrid-electric power”. (Curt Epstein, AINonline) The aircraft flew for 2 hours and 35 minutes and made a 341-mile flight. The first test flight of this hybrid-electric Cessna 337 Skymaster was in 2019.
Taking reference from the electric car development, we can reasonably conclude that we are a few technological cycles away from a long distance, mega-sized commercial aircraft. Sean Newsum, Boeing’s director of environment strategy believes that we are a long way to go from “scaling up the technology to power a large 737-sized aircraft.” (Dominic Perry, Flight Global). The first electric vehicle on the road was introduced in the 1800s after “a series of breakthroughs”. (energy.gov) However, the rapid growth in this market only happened in the past decade and in “2020 the global electric car stock hit the 10 milion mark”. (IEA) Aircrafts are much more difficult to engineer, with higher sensitivity to aircrafts. ”Electric planes need batteries with enough energy per kilogram of battery, or the mass penalty means they simply can’t fly long distances. (The Conversation)
The transition to electric aircraft will be a long battle, with battery technology being the biggest hurdle to overcome. Current technology and developments in electric aircraft is competing in urban air mobility market, suited for short distances with limited passenger capacity. Head of Spirit of Innovation, Mathieu Parr also mentioned that we can expect “fixed wing aircraft with nine to 19 seats with all-electric and hybrid-electric aircraft in 2028 to 2030.” (Christian Hetzner, Fortune) While we continue to celebrate the engineering achievements in this field, immediate decarbonisation of mass travel cannot depend on green aircrafts as the solution.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is “made using sustainable feedstock” and “has the potential to reduce carbon emissions by up to 80% over its lifecycle” (JTC). It is a quick solution to the emission problems of aviation as it does not require a major overhaul of aircraft design and engineering. Globally, there has been a strong push for SAF. “Over 370,000 flights” powered by SAF have taken flight since 2016. (IATA) Following the recent Singapore airshow, Neste also announced that it “plans to produce its first batch of sustainable aviation fuel in Singapore by the end of first quarter next year” (Koustave Samanta, Reuters). “Boeing and other aircraft and engine manufacturers have committed to delivering commercial airplanes ready to fly on 100% SAF by 2030.” (Susan van Dyk, Green Air News)
Challenges with SAF
- SAF “currently costs four times as much as conventional jet fuel and it makes up less than one percent of fuel available in the market” (Kelsey Reichmann, Aviation Today).
- SAF also has to be used blended with traditional jet fuel “at up to 50%” (BP) which also limits the extent of decarbonisation. Individual SAFs differ in composition which affects the allowable blending percentage.
- There isn’t enough supply of sustainable aviation fuel with “60 companies accelerating the supply and use of sustainable aviation fuel to reach 10% of global jet aviation fuel supply by 2030”. (Madeleine Hillyer, World Economic Forum)
With the Fly Net Zero commitment of airlines to achieve net zero carbon by 2050, (IATA) we can reasonably believe that airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers will double down on technological development towards sustainable aviation.
However, climate action is much more urgent than 2050. This would mean shift in taxation policies and consumer demand, shaping the way for highly-customised and short distance travels, where current green aircraft technology is primed to serve. It will become less viable to fly long distances between mega-cities where green technology is unavailable.
Terraformers believes that this presents an opportunity for us to create a new travel paradigm from scratch. Where regional travel is not common, especially in the global south, this presents an untapped market for us to build regenerative travel from scratch.