A new flight path with FlyZero

23rd September 2021

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Greg Webster

Greg Webster speaks to Naresh Kumar about the potential of the FlyZero programme, which aims to deliver zero-carbon commercial aircraft

From Sweden’s flygskam (‘flight shame’) movement to the battles over Heathrow’s third runway, air transport has long raised the ire of the environmental movement. Can anything be done to allow us to continue flying without further contributing to climate breakdown? Is it possible to get to zero-carbon in aviation? Might guilt-free flying be within reach?

As we approach COP26, the UK government has been attempting to drive the net-zero transition agenda in a range of ways. One of the most interesting initiatives is the FlyZero programme, initially a 12-month research programme under the wing of the Aerospace Technology Institute. Its bold brief is to deliver zero-carbon commercial aircraft to market by 2030.

From a standing start late last year, the project now has a multidisciplinary team of more than 90, drawn from across the sector. They are undertaking a detailed study of the design challenges, manufacturing demands, operational requirements and market opportunities involved in potential zero-carbon aircraft concepts. The core team is also leveraging expertise from across UK academia and beyond, through work packages investigating solutions to a spectrum of technical challenges.

An ambitious brief

The project’s ambition is impressive. Rather than confining its scope to just in-flight emissions, it is also mapping out all aspects of the infrastructure that delivers aircraft to air, so that a fully integrated vision for the future of aviation might emerge.

Naresh Kumar is FlyZero’s head of sustainability; he started in his role in January, following a long career at Rolls-Royce. “We are looking into radical new technology that will fundamentally change the aviation sector in the long term,” he says.

When it comes to sustainability, a comprehensive approach is being worked through. “Although the primary aim of the project is to achieve zero-carbon emissions aircraft technology, we recognise that when we put the concepts into service in 2030, they will have to be certificated,” Kumar explains. “So carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions aren’t the only thing we have to get right. We have set targets that address not only CO₂, but also other aspects of sustainability, such as water and nitrogen emissions, and noise. As we go forward, sustainability stringency will become tighter and tighter, so we have built into the targets the next level of stringency that we expect on all those parameters.”

Lifecycle analysis is also an intrinsic part of the study. “We are conducting a full lifecycle assessment of the changes that we would see as a result of FlyZero technology – from the different processes and different materials that may be used, to the latest manufacturing assembly and testing techniques, and the actual aircraft operation in its flight envelope. We are also taking stock of what the implications would be for airports in terms of the infrastructure that will be needed for different fuels, and the energy that might be needed for those fuels to be available to the aviation sector. Finally, we are making sure that we understand the end-of-life and decommissioning aspects – so it is genuinely a full lifecycle assessment.”

Offsetting and alternative fuels

What part might offsetting play in the FlyZero vision? This question raises the spectre of controversy, but Kumar is quick to offer clarity: “We are assessing offsetting in the sense that we don’t want to leave any stone unturned in terms of available mechanisms. This is an area that is quite important for the aviation sector as it exists today, but as we are evaluating zero-carbon fuels and energy sources, we do not envisage having to offset any emissions. We recognise that many organisations in the manufacturing arena already participate in emissions trading and offsetting schemes, so we want to make sure we understand those aspects – but our principal deliverable is to achieve zero-carbon emissions aircraft.”

A crucial element of the project will be establishing an alternative to current fossil fuel-based energy for propulsion. The programme is scrutinising a range of options, with hydrogen being the prime candidate. This brings up the debate around blue versus green hydrogen, as well as doubts over the scalability and commercial viability of carbon capture and storage technology, and what transition scenarios might look like when moving to a fossil fuel-free, zero-carbon future.

“We are looking to understand this area in as much detail as we possibly can with the information that is available,” Kumar says. “There are a number of different ways you can manufacture hydrogen – it’s not something you dig out of the ground, like crude oil. We don’t want to swap one problem for another, so we are doing that evaluation. We need to establish the most efficient way of generating and transporting hydrogen, from all the different technologies that organisations are exploring today. We are taking a fair amount of time to understand that.”

FlyZero is focusing on the regional and single-aisle aircraft sector, which is responsible for 48% of aircraft CO₂ emissions (the umbrella Jet Zero Council is responsible for the wider transition to net-zero transatlantic aviation, including the promotion of sustainable aviation fuels [SAFs] to kickstart emissions reductions). But we need to address 100% of aviation emissions – so does the FlyZero technology scale up?

“FlyZero technology will look at regional aircraft, single-aisle aircraft and middle-of-the-market aircraft concepts. We realise that scaling up from those technology levels to bigger aircraft, with much longer ranges for intercontinental flight, will take more time, expertise and technology as we go forward. SAFs clearly offer an immediate emissions reduction because of the way they are developed, so you need SAFs in order to reduce emissions from the current aircraft fleet as quickly as possible. However, we must also carry on developing zero-carbon emissions technologies. In the long run, zero-emissions technology gives you different prospects.”

“Aviation is a growing sector and new capacity will be needed – wouldn’t it be fantastic to fill that using technology that offers environmental solutions?”

A glimpse of the future

The 2030 goal for a certified zero-emissions commercial aircraft sounds incredibly challenging – and even if it is achieved, how long might it take to replace the existing fleet? “If we have entry into service in 2030, it will take a finite amount of time to replace existing aircraft, and typically that might take 25 years,” says Kumar. “At the same time, aviation is a growing sector in many developing parts of the world and new capacity will be needed – wouldn’t it be fantastic to fill that new capacity using new technology that offers environmental solutions of the kind that we are looking into?”

Throughout our conversation, Kumar exudes an optimism about what can be achieved by bringing the right skillsets together and working with conviction towards ambitious goals. It’s hard not to be impressed by the scope and vision of the FlyZero programme. When the initial phase is completed early next year, it may offer us a glimpse of what zero-carbon air travel could actually look like in the not-too-distant future.

Greg Webster, PIEMA is a writer and consultant.

Image credit | iStock


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