March 14, 2022, © Leeham News: You might call it the soup du jour.
EcoAviation is all over the place at aviation conferences these days. It was a key topic at last October’s Annual General Meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Likewise at last month’s annual conference of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance (PNAA). EcoAviation also was an element of the Speed News conference in Los Angeles early this month and at another event the following week. Investor Day events now routinely include ecoAviation discussion.
This is all well and good, but at last, some key members of the industry are putting caution and realism to the pie-in-the-sky stuff that is sucking up investment like the Dot Com era a few decades ago. Only a few ideas and technologies will be successful.
Don’t get us wrong. At Leeham Co., we are all for Research and Development. We also recognize that out of failures there is often success. Baby steps are necessary.
But goals set by IATA to achieve net carbon neutral by 2050 and significant use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) by certain dates in between. Tim Clark, the president of Emirates Airline, told IATA at the AGM, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.” Steve Udvar-Hazy, the chairman of Air Lease Corp, said last week at a conference that the chances of commercial aviation reaching net-zero carbon by 2050 are “none” and “nil.”
At the Speed News conference March 2-4, Adam Klauber of World Energy advocated a voluntary approach to SAF. LNA believes there must be regulatory mandates, but this aside, Klauber suggests that by 2030, 16% of the airline fuel can come from biofuels and 2% from synthetic SAF. By 2050, the target IATA set for net-zero carbon emissions from commercial aviation, Klauber suggests the ratio will be 45% and 33%. Twenty percent will still come from carbon-based fuel, he said.
With proactive volunteerism, he suggests that by 2050, the ratio can reach 24% and 48% for SAF. Klauber suggests that by 2050, 3% of commercial aviation will be battery-powered and 25% of the flights will be fueled by hydrogen.
The total cost to reach net-zero emissions is estimated to be “at least” $8.5tr, Klauber said. He did not discuss except in the highest level where this money will come from. Clark, the Emirates president, and other industry officials said government subsidies and tax breaks must be part of it.
Some in aviation who should know better (and probably do) and others outside the industry like to equate hybrid or pure battery-powered cars to airplanes, suggesting that the technology is transferrable.
Yes and no.
Conceptually, yes. But the energy and safety required for commercially viable airline flights go way beyond where today’s technology is today. And when a battery-powered Nissan Leaf or hybrid Toyota Prius runs low on battery mid-trip, pulling off the road is a safe alternative. If a battery-powered airplane runs low, finding a place to land isn’t always a safe option.
Ensuring safety for batteries is another challenge. We’ve seen Teslas and battery-powered buses spontaneously burst into flames, sometimes simply parked. There’s a real emergency if a battery in an airplane bursts into flames. Lithium-Ion batteries have done so on aircraft. In the case of the Boeing 787, the Japan Air Lines plane was parked on the ramp in Boston, and nobody was hurt. In the case of a UPS cargo Boeing 747 freighter transporting a load of these batteries crashed while it was trying to make an emergency landing. A couple of today’s experimental battery-powered airplanes crashed. One killed its occupants.
Hydrogen offers what appears to be clean fuel. But contrails are emitted, and science isn’t totally sure about the effect of contrails on the atmosphere. There are also the problems of designing an airplane for safe passenger operation, including the prospect of crashes, and the trades of H2 vs Jet A. then there are the infrastructure and production challenges.
SAF is viewed by many as the surest near-term solution to reducing emissions. Cost, feedstock, supplies, and production remain unclear, however. This brings us back to engines.
Today’s engines are superior to yesterday’s. Yesterday’s engines are superior to last month’s. Last month’s engines are superior to last year’s engines. But what about tomorrow’s engines?
GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce had and continue to have Performance Improvement Packages (PIPs) that reduce fuel burn and with it, cut emissions. But PIPs are incremental steps. A percent here, a percent there. Sometimes only half a percent.
PW told me last October it can get perhaps another 10% out of the GTF by 2031. This sounds ambitious on its face, but I don’t know what I don’t know about their internal studies. CFM claims its Open Fan RISE engine will be ready for service by 2035, with a 20% reduction in fuel and emissions. PW is skeptical of the Open Fan, which is to be expected. But it’s not alone. There are plenty of people who don’t believe all the technological, safety, and design issues are solvable any time soon—and then there’s the passenger acceptance of what amounts to a giant turboprop.
At its Investors Day, GE Aviation said flight testing of the RISE engine can begin in mid-decade.
So, this brings us to the $15bn question: will Boeing roll the dice for a new airplane with an EIS of ~2030 and a 10% fuel burn/emissions reduction? Or will it roll the dice to wait for the RISE test flights and early results before launching a new airplane program with an Open Fan—a design concept Boeing’s Wise Man, Joe Sutter, once said would never see the light of day on a Boeing airplane?