Decarbonising aviation is UK industry’s opportunity to become the world-leader in net zero aircraft development, according to experts at Cranfield University in new advice to policy-makers.

The recommendations come as part of a new policy briefing paper from the Royal Society, ‘Net zero aviation fuels – resource requirements and environmental impacts’, to be presented to parliament on 28 February 2023.

Based on contributions from Royal Society Fellows and 13 UK universities and research institutions, the policy briefing provides an independent, scientifically-robust report on the way forward for UK aviation in achieving decarbonisation. The report urges policy-makers to pursue a ‘portfolio’ of potential routes to decarbonisation and avoid becoming drawn too quickly into single or short-term solutions.

Dr Guy Gratton, Associate Professor of Aviation and the Environment, and Pericles Pilidis, Professor of Gas Turbine Performance, at Cranfield University led the investigation into the role of aircraft design and operations in achieving net zero targets. Their work re-affirms the importance of new aircraft and operations for a future of sustainable aviation.

Attention must focus on longer-term opportunities

“A huge amount of attention is being paid to the potential of biofuels — but these in themselves are not a long-term solution,” said Dr Gratton. “Aircraft can be adapted for biofuels and deliver some important reductions in carbon emissions, around 60%, but that’s not enough to deliver a genuinely sustainable aviation sector. This option, in any case, comes with significant problems when it comes to feedstocks — estimates suggest at least half of the UK’s agricultural land would need to be turned over to energy crops if we were to grow all our own aviation fuel.”

The attention of policy makers should be focused, instead, on the longer-term opportunities presented by the need for low or net zero carbon aircraft and related operations, the Cranfield researchers argue. Whatever technology proves to be the most viable — green hydrogen, ammonia, synthetic fuels or biofuels — aircraft themselves will have to change.

Professor Pilidis said: “Green hydrogen is expensive in the short term but possibly the final, long term solution.  This is because it can decarbonise and potentially deliver much lower nitrogen oxide emissions than any hydrocarbon fuel, refined or synthetic.”

Dr Gratton adds: “The traditional design of aircraft with present-shaped wings acting as storage tanks for fuel won’t work. With the use of hydrogen, for example, larger tanks would be needed, meaning the likelihood of larger aircraft and all the implications there for aerodynamics and design”.

UK has potential to lead development of net zero aircraft

“The UK lost its way in the 1980s, when its ability to design, build and certify large aircraft dwindled. There is now a massive opportunity for the sector to be a leader in developing net zero aircraft from start to finish — there is a window of technological change where the UK can be the pioneer.”

New aircraft will mean new skills are needed across the industry. From pilots to flight schedulers, engineers, refuellers and firefighters, all will need upskilling to work in the new environment. These extend from bespoke skills relating to the adoption of new propulsion technologies to improving the efficiency of systems, implementing digital aviation, and ensuring there is an understanding of human factors and behavioural aspects.

The report can be downloaded from the Royal Society website from 28 February.