Jan. 17, 2023, © Leeham News: “What can be. What should be.”
This was the title of an address last week at the University of Washington’s aerospace department. The speaker: the former CEO of The Boeing Co., Phil Condit.
Condit was named president of Boeing in 1992 and CEO in 1996. He retired in 2004 after a lifetime career at Boeing, with leadership roles in the 747, 757, 757, 767, and 777 programs.
With ecoAviation the soup de jour these days, beneficiaries of billions of dollars of investment (much of it stupid money) and the subject of much greenwashing, Condit had frank and candid observations about these concepts.
Although Condit retired from Boeing in the wake of the USAF tanker procurement scandal dating to 2001, his engineering skills and fundamental visions were highly regarded. He put these skills to good use a week ago.
“There’s a lot of work here that ‘can be,’ and ‘should be,’” he began. “There’s also a fair amount of stuff that ‘shouldn’t be.’ The first part about this is about energy.”
Condit noted that in the popular media today, “there is a ton of stuff about hydrogen.” Rolls-Royce recently ran an engine on hydrogen. Airbus is focused on developing a hydrogen-fueled airplane. Although he didn’t mention it, start-up Universal Hydrogen is nearing the first flight of a converted De Havilland Canada Dash 8-300 in Moses Lake (WA).
“At first glance, if you read anything in the popular press, in the first paragraph, it will say ‘this is the perfect fuel. The only products for combustion are water and heat.’ What could be better than that?” Condit asked, rhetorically.
Well, the premise isn’t correct. “Hydrogen is not a fuel. It is an energy carrier,” he said. “It looks just like batteries. It takes energy to produce it, and you can get energy back out of it. The problem is that everybody who is a proponent of hydrogen wants you to use green hydrogen.” Hydrogen comes in green, blue and gray colors. Gray hydrogen is produced from methane and has a byproduct of carbon dioxide. “If you’re interested in the environment, that’s not a great idea,” Condit said.
Blue hydrogen is produced from methane, but the CO2 is captured. “It’s better. Green hydrogen is produced by electrolysis. What everybody says is you want to use sustainable power and produce green hydrogen.”
But, Condit said, if you use sustainable electricity and charge batteries for an electric car, the front-to-back efficiency is about 85%. Producing hydrogen, going into a tank for a fuel cell driving an electric vehicle, the efficiency is about 35%. “Making hydrogen is not a particularly efficient process.”
Furthermore, globally about 17% of the power is generated from sustainable resources. “Do I want to use it to produce hydrogen inefficiently or do I want to use it to produce sustainable electricity efficiently?
“My take is that the best answer from an environmental standpoint, from an efficiency standpoint, is that hydrogen is not the answer, even though it looks really neat on paper” Condit said.
If it’s not hydrogen, then what about batteries? Condit is skeptical of this, too.
“Batteries are more efficient than hydrogen. However, they are heavy.” Today’s batteries are 45 times worse than jet fuel for weight-to-power. “If I put batteries into a 747 to replace the amount of fuel the 747 carriers, you could have about 20 minutes of sustained flight. If you look at most electric airplanes, the best you are seeing is about half an hour or 45 minutes.”
Condit also noted that as Jet A fuel is used, weight goes down. As energy in the batteries is used, the weight doesn’t go down.
This brings the effort to Sustainable Aviation Fuel as the best alternative to Jet A. But even this is problematic. The best SAF depends on how it’s made.
“It can be produced, and the emphasis is on can, in a way that is net carbon zero or even potentially slight net carbon negative. But it is not an easy process,” Condit said. “And it’s expensive.”
Making SAF out of algae and saltwater enables net-negative carbon production. Other materials, especially displacing food crops, displace some the benefits.
(Boeing has a new software program called Cascade in which settings may be made for good and bad elements of producing any of the options to arrive at a net benefit analysis.)
But SAF is the only option of the three that Condit sees having long-term potential.
Next time, I’ll report on Condit’s views about eVTOLs, UAMs, SSTs and Hypersonic concepts.