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The Future of Flight: Five ways green aero-tech is cleaning up the aviation industry

One of the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry is the environmental impact of flying. Even while concerns on the climate front intensify post-pandemic, global emissions and total passenger numbers continue to rise.

In a bid to drive sustainable aviation forward, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has established the ‘Net to Zero by 2050’ – a commitment from the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

With the industry under pressure to find sustainable solutions, investments in the ‘green aero-tech’ space are starting to take off, offering exciting opportunities for startups in this field. Here, we look at five ways green aero-tech is launching the aviation industry to a cleaner future.

1. Solar-powered flight

Solar power is one of the most popular types of renewable energy sources available to date. However, while solar panels on rooftops are an increasingly common sight, harvesting the sun’s rays to power an aircraft may seem a little too sci-fi to be true.

Nevertheless, the impossible has been made possible.

On 26 July 2016, the world’s first solar-powered aircraft, Solar Impulse 2, touched down at “Al Bateen” Executive Airport in Abu Dhabi. The round-the-world flight, which covered 40,000 km over four continents, was achieved without a single drop of liquid aviation fuel.

While the feasibility of solar-powered commercial aviation may be many years in the making, this incredible feat in engineering has been the catalyst for driving green innovation in the aviation industry.

Subsequently, aviation giants such as Airbus, Boeing and Siemens are developing programmes for electric and hybrid technologies to reduce emissions in the future.

The success of the Solar Impulse flight led to creator Bertrand Piccard launching the World Alliance of Efficient Solutions – an initiative that connects governments, startups, and investors with 1,000 innovative solutions to create and promote ‘clean growth’ in the aviation industry.

It’s not just an aircraft that can benefit from solar power. Thanks to the abundance of sunshine in the UAE and the region, Emirates Airlines is currently operating solar photovoltaic panels to power its Engine Maintenance Centre, saving around 800 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.

2. Electric flight

Electric flight is not a new concept. In fact, lightweight experimental planes capable of flying short distances have been around since the 1970s. But today’s growing urgency to reduce CO2 emissions has led to a surge of interest in the development of electric passenger aircraft.

In October this year, ‘Alice’, the first all-electric passenger plane, took off from Grant County International Airport, Washington, USA. Alice is the brainchild of Israeli-founded aviation company Eviation Aircraft. Using battery technology similar to electric cars, the nine-passenger aircraft is capable of flying up to approximately 440 nautical miles (800 km) with a maximum cruise speed of around 460 km/h.

Eviation is not the only company investing heavily in electric technology – the race for a 100% electric, emissions-free future is on. These are some of the leading players taking flight right now:

  • Airbus – the aviation giant has been developing and testing all-electric aircraft since 2010, laying the groundwork for the future development of all-electric passenger jets.
  • Harbour Air Seaplanes – in 2019, the small Canadian airline, in partnership with aero-tech firm magniX, successfully converted a retro-fitted, six-passenger De Havilland Beaver into an all-electric aircraft. The company is committed to becoming the world’s first all-electric, zero-emissions commercial airline.
  • Avinor – in an ambitious government-backed plan, Norway’s public operator of the country’s airports, aims for all short-haul flights leaving its airports to be 100% electric-powered by 2040.
  • Heart Aerospace – in a bid to make all Swedish domestic flights fossil-free by 2030, the aviation firm is currently developing the ES-30, a 30-passenger plane with a fully battery-powered range of 200 km.

3. Hydrogen-powered planes

Largely due to the use of traditional kerosene to fuel planes, commercial aviation is currently responsible for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. Cleaner, greener, and quieter, could hydrogen, as a replacement fuel, be the answer?

Emitting only water, allowing potential speeds to match traditional planes and capable of carrying more passengers, hydrogen-fuelled aircraft could be a feasible option in the not-too-distant future.

According to industry leader Airbus, working extensively on the development of hydrogen-based technologies, renewable hydrogen has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions in the aviation industry by 50%. Airbus is currently working on a hydrogen-powered zero-emissions engine that is expected to be in service by 2035.

4. Flying taxis

Autonomous flying vehicles may seem like something from a Disney Pixar movie, but in Dubai they could become a reality by 2026. In October 2022, the XPeng X2, developed by Chinese aviation affiliate Xpeng Inc, made its debut in the Marina District, Dubai. The two-passenger ‘flying car’ produces zero carbon emissions and can travel in the air and on roads. Reaching a top speed of 130 km/h, the flying taxi could provide a viable, high-tech solution for reducing urban congestion and pollution.

XPeng Inc is not the only company delving into flying vehicle R&D.

  • German company Volocopter has been testing ‘flying taxis’ in Dubai in an agreement with the RTA since 2017.
  • Boeing-backed air taxi startup Wisk Aero recently unveiled its all-electric, four-seater, pilotless aircraft at Dubai’s Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX) 2022.
  • Airbus launched its CityAirbus NextGen in September 2021. The four-passenger aircraft, equipped with eight electrically powered propellers, has an 80 km range and a cruise speed of 120 km/h.

5. Sustainable aviation fuel

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is one of the green aero-tech areas invested in most heavily by airlines today. Current research suggests that SAFs could cut carbon emissions by up to 80%. Biofuels use sources such as waste and residues, animal fat, used cooking oils and plant-based oils to create a renewable, sustainable aviation fuel that could be a feasible and accessible replacement to traditional kerosene.

The ‘Greenliner’ programme, run by the UAE’s Etihad Airways, was recently used to highlight the benefits of SAFs at the COP27 Climate Conference in November. The Greenliner initiative is committed to adopting sustainable solutions for cleaner air travel, such as using SAFs and addressing other threats to the climate like plastic waste and inefficient travel operations.

Emirates, a member of the Clean Skies for Tomorrow coalition, operated its first SAF-powered flight from Chicago O’Hare airport back in 2017. Its first A380, powered by SAF was received in December 2020. In partnership with GE Aviation, the airline is currently developing a programme to use 100% SAF on its Boeing 777-300ER aircraft.

In 2023, Virgin Atlantic is set to operate the world’s first net-zero transatlantic flight using only SAF. The London to New York flight will be fuelled primarily by waste oils and fats such as reused, standard cooking oil. In December 2021, Qantas became the first Australian carrier to order SAF on an ongoing basis for its regular scheduled services from Heathrow Airport, London.

The future for green aero-tech looks bright (and clean!)

From the development of SAFs to advanced propulsion technologies, the future for green aero-tech startups is bright. As the pressure for airlines to improve their sustainability agendas intensifies, investment in innovative green aerospace technologies will continue to grow.

The increase in corporate venture capital in the airline industry shows how willing airlines are to explore new and disruptive technologies. In the context of sustainability, could innovative startups drive forward the changes that are needed?