We need to talk about plane fuel

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We all love to fly around the world, as the Covid travel ban blues have revealed. But aviation is a major source of carbon emissions, and accounts for a massive 12 per cent of the transportation sector’s carbon footprint. That’s 2 per cent of all human-created carbon emissions. So, what are the clever people doing to change that? Here’s what’s brewing in the R&D departments.

Hydrogen-powered planes

Hamburg, Germany, could be home to liquid hydrogen-powered airplanes as early as 2022.

The city of Hamburg is funding the foray into hydrogen-outfitted planes with Lufthansa Technik, the German Aerospace Center the Center for Applied Aeronautical Research and Hamburg Airport.

After a year of research, practical tests are scheduled to begin in early 2022 using an Airbus A320 modified with liquid hydrogen infrastructure that will operate as a stationary laboratory.

Hamburg is the third largest aviation cluster in the world, merging a key part of its economy with the city’s push to become a global leader in sustainably produced hydrogen power.

“With this project, we are now also making an essential contribution to the transformation of aviation into a climate-neutral mobility solution of the future,” said Hamburg’s Senator for Economics and Innovation Michael Westhagemann.

Other major companies are turning to hydrogen fuel cells as a potential power source for airplanes and other modes of transportation.

General Motors announced a partnership with Europe’s Liebherr-Aerospace to develop prototype hydrogen fuel cells for airplanes.

Unlike Hamburg’s prototype, these fuel cells would only be used as a backup for the auxiliary power unit, which generates power for planes when on the ground or in an emergency.

Expanding biofuel use

Plant-derived biofuels are another jet fuel alternative that could see expanded within a decade.

Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company, pledged that 100 per cent of their fleet would run on sustainable biofuel by 2030.

“Our industry and customers are committed to addressing climate change, and sustainable aviation fuels are the safest and most measurable solution to reduce aviation carbon emissions in the coming decades,” said Boeing’s chief executive officer Stan Deal.

“We’re committed to working with regulators, engine companies and other key stakeholders to ensure our airplanes and eventually our industry can fly entirely on sustainable jet fuels.”

These sustainable biofuels can be produced from a variety of ingredients such as agricultural and forest waste, non-edible crops and non-recyclable household goods while reducing 80 per cent of emissions over the fuel’s life compared to traditional jet fuel.

Boeing previously completed test flights using 100 per cent biofuel, but a full commercial rollout requires sustainable fuel use beyond partial blends. Under current regulations, biofuel use is limited to a 50/50 blend with traditional jet fuel.

Biofuels have been a viable point in emissions reductions for a few years now, with the world’s first test by Virgin Atlantic in 2008 using a 20 per cent blend with coconut and babassu oil.

Qantas first introduced its own biofuel in 2018 using a form of mustard seed called brassica carinata. Its initial use on a trans-Pacific commercial flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne cut emissions by 7 per cent compared to the usual flight.

The return of airships?

Airships have not been a common sight since the late 1930s, unless you count the occasional Goodyear blimp at an American sporting event or Led Zeppelin album covers.

However, these airships could be making a comeback as a more sustainable alternative to airplanes altogether.

UK company Hybrid Air Vehicles is hoping to have its fleet of hybrid electric ships in the air by 2025 with a series of short flights including Liverpool to Belfast, Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca, Oslo to Stockholm and Seattle to Vancouver.

In its current form, HAV’s Airlander 10 cuts 75 per cent of emissions compared to airplanes. The company’s recently approved electric engine could see that number hit 90 per cent on hybrid electric ships by 2025 and eventually net-zero by 2030.

In addition to commercial uses, airships are being touted as a possible solution for transporting heavy cargo from dense, remote locations.

The Quebec government invested $30 million Canadian dollars into French company Flying Whales, despite the company not even having its first ship in operation. The Chinese government also has a stake in the company.

Other airship manufacturers to keep an eye on are Lockheed Martin in the US and Atlas LTA in Israel.

One potential problem is quite literally getting it off the ground. A limited supply of helium and a steep price could pose a significant barrier for a large-scale fleet.

The alternative would be hydrogen, but if there are two h-words that warrant anxiety around airships, it’s hydrogen and Hindenburg.

Will commercial airships return to the skies, or is the industry doomed to its post-war role as an advertising gimmick? Only time and testing will tell.

This article was originally published by The Fifth Estate, for additional information visit: https://thefifthestate.com.au/

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