Sustainable Aviation Technology – Low Carbon Air Travel

Refuelling with SAF for lower-carbon air travel. Image Pixabay
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Refuelling with SAF for lower-carbon air travel. Image Pixabay

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Sustainable Aviation Technology – Low Carbon Air Travel

The aviation industry is one of the most polluting sectors, and it is time for us to use sustainable aviation technologies with less environmental impact. Luckily, the aviation industry has seen significant growth in sustainable technology solutions, such as electric planes, biofuels and fuel cells, over the last few years. 

The aviation industry is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and its impact on the environment is only expected to increase in the coming years. While some airlines are beginning to invest in sustainable aviation technology, there is still a long way to go before the industry becomes truly green.

The main environmental impact of aviation comes from the emissions of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change. The most significant of these gases is carbon dioxide (CO2), released when aircraft burn fossil fuels like jet fuel. International aviation accounts for 3% of the global CO2 emissions from all human activities.

While there have been some efforts to reduce the environmental impact of aviation, such as investing in more fuel-efficient aircraft, these have so far been offset by the increasing demand for air travel. The aviation industry will need to take radical action to make a significant dent in its carbon footprint.

Passenger Demand for Sustainable Travel

Passenger demand for sustainable travel is rising as consumers become more aware of the environmental impacts of flying. A recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that most surveyed travellers would be willing to pay more for a flight if it meant reducing their carbon footprint.

This increasing awareness and desire for sustainable travel options is good news for the aviation industry, which is under regulatory pressure to reduce its environmental impact. The ICCT study found that passengers are willing to make small sacrifices – such as giving up in-flight entertainment or paying a few dollars more per ticket – to fly on a more sustainable aircraft.

Airlines that invest in sustainable technology to reduce their environmental impact will be well-positioned to tap into this growing market opportunity.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

One area of focus is the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF). SAF are fuels made from renewable plant or animal materials and can be used in place of traditional jet fuel. While biofuels currently only make up a tiny fraction of aviation fuel use, they are said to have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of flying.

The quest for sustainable aviation fuel is driven by several factors, including regulatory pressure, public opinion, and the overarching need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The aviation industry has set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by 50% by 2050, and SAF will play a key role in achieving this target.

Several types of SAF are currently under development, including biofuels made from algae and waste products such as used cooking oil. The use of SAF is still in its early stages, but it is expected to grow rapidly in the coming years as the technology matures and becomes more widely available.

The Potential of Electric Aircraft

The potential of electric aircraft is huge. They are much quieter than conventional aircraft, so they can be used in urban areas without disturbing residents. Because they are electric, they use no fuel, are more efficient financially than conventional aircraft, and have no emissions. Electric aircraft are still in the early stages of development, but their potential to transform aviation is immense. 

Harbour Air in British Columbia has been trialling an electric retrofit of a DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver seaplane. The 12-place Beaver is a staple of the Pacific North West and is known for its heavy payload capacity and short takeoff and landing abilities. The short routes operated by the airline make it an ideal choice for electrification, and the e-Beaver will be deployed on specific runs where it makes the most sense. 

Working with industry partners like Siemens and Rolls Royce, Airbus is leading the way in developing purpose-designed electric and electric hybrid aircraft. Their product development range includes small urban aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities and more conventional larger and medium-range commuter planes. 

In 2021, United Airlines announced its intent to purchase 100 ES-30 electric aircraft from Swedish startup Heart Aerospace. The planes will service more than 100 of United’s regional routes at most of its hubs and will be operational in 2028. 

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Hydrogen fuel cells are becoming an increasingly viable option for aircraft applications. Companies such as ZeroAvia have demonstrated that, with their technology, long-range zero-emission commercial aircraft are possible. 

United Airlines, American Airlines and Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures have all invested in the company, and currently, they have more than 1500 pre-orders for its hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Beyond clean operation, hydrogen fuel cells provide greater efficiency than traditional methods, allowing for more energy to be created using less fuel. As such, this offers significant economic savings, allowing early-adopting companies to better compete in the airline market. 

Challenges of Sustainable Aviation

The most obvious challenge to the widespread deployment of sustainable aviation technology is the sheer size and weight of the aircraft. Even the most fuel-efficient designs require large amounts of energy to get airborne and stay in the air, and they must carry their fuel source the entire time. While this means that even small reductions in fuel consumption can have a big impact on emissions, the fuel or energy used must be able to take a very energy-dense form.

Another challenge is the need for infrastructure to support industry acceptance and growth of sustainable aviation technology. This includes everything from charging infrastructure to hydrogen storage and refuelling to alternate storage for SAF.

Finally, there is the challenge of changing consumer behaviour. Many people still see flying as an entitlement rather than a privilege. To achieve true sustainability, we need to get people thinking about flying differently. We need to make them aware of the environmental impact of their travel choices and encourage them to consider alternatives such as video conferencing or taking the train instead of flying when possible.

Sustainable aviation technology has the potential to drastically reduce emissions and make air travel more accessible for everyone. With governments, businesses, and individuals taking steps towards eco-friendly flying, we could see a greener sky in the near future.

As technology advances and sustainable solutions become more widely available, low-carbon air travel will become the norm instead of the exception. 


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