Climate change is one of the most important issues affecting the world today and the environmental challenge is aviation’s biggest yet. Although aviation currently only counts for around 3% of carbon emissions, air travel is certainly on the increase and there is still uncertainty over the harmful effects of emissions at high altitude.
Nevertheless, the aviation industry is taking its responsibility to find solutions to greener air travel very seriously. Aerospace companies have made huge progress in their search for environmentally sustainable solutions, resulting in new career paths from the emerging technologies being used or proposed, such as carbon composite engineers, alternative fuels researchers and aircraft recycling specialists.
Large aerospace companies such as Rolls-Royce, Airbus and Boeing are working closely with UK universities on a range of shorter-term solutions, from more efficient combustion engines, to using composite materials to replace heavier metals in the airframe to make aircraft lighter, both with tangible results in aircraft such as the A380 and Boeing 787. These partnerships have resulted in several specialist research centres such as Boeing’s partnership with the University of Sheffield on the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).
However, sustainability research is not confined to large manufacturers. The new technologies have also led to increasing numbers of smaller, specialist consultancies throughout the UK, taking part in research and also providing services such as test and evaluation of new aircraft materials for airworthiness certification, for example.
Other short-term solutions include better air traffic management, with concepts such as ‘continuous descent approaches’ into airports which can also help to reduce fuel burn. Here, organisations such as the Civil Aviation Authority, National Air Traffic Services and the European Aviation Safety Agency are working closely with national governments and airlines.
Other proposals are longer-term but offer some radical changes to aircraft technology. Blended wing body (BWB) designs, replacing ‘tube and wing’ aircraft designs with ‘all-in-one’ airframes and wings significantly reduce drag resulting in greater fuel economy and quieter aircraft. The new composite materials make BWB aircraft a greater possibility and academics at Cranfield University and the University of Cambridge are making important advances in the field. Meanwhile Boeing and Virgin Atlantic have tested biofuels in a 747’s engine, and Airbus have tested a synthetic fuel made from natural gas on an A380, helping engineers to know more about how alternative fuels may power aircraft in future, and, with concerns over sustainable biofuel production, provided data into the airborne qualities of different types of biofuel from sustainable sources.
However there is one vital component in the sustainability equation: young people! Sustainable aviation solutions need a sustainable supply of young, innovative thinkers with knowledge of science, technology, maths and engineering and commercial understanding to keep new ideas flowing.
The UK is playing an important role in greener air travel research, and this reflects the remarkable achievements of the UK in aerospace innvovation, from the jet engine through to Concorde – can you take the industry forward in the low carbon economy of the future?