A new flight path with FlyZero

23rd September 2021

Web p30 31 A new flight path i Stock 1289526308

Related tags

  • Transport ,
  • Technology ,


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

Transform articles

National climate plans could see fossil fuel demand peak by 2025

Demand for fossil fuels will peak by 2025 if all national net-zero pledges are implemented in full and on time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast.

15th October 2021

Read more

Climate change remains one of the top issues most concerning the UK public, despite the economic turmoil experienced over the last 18 months, a poll commissioned by IEMA has found.

15th October 2021

Read more

Almost one-third of Europe's largest companies have now set net-zero emissions targets, but far less are set to deliver on their ambitions.

7th October 2021

Read more

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) has today unveiled the most significant changes to its reporting standards since 2016, setting a new benchmark for corporate sustainability.

5th October 2021

Read more

A group of world-leading climate scientists has today warned that carbon pricing is currently too low to deliver a just transition to a net-zero economy, and that "urgent reforms" are needed.

30th September 2021

Read more

The Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) in Kew has today unveiled a new strategy to tackle biodiversity loss and develop sustainable nature-based solutions to some of humanity’s biggest global challenges.

28th September 2021

Read more

David Burrows reports on the rising tide of cybercrime, and explains why an increased focus on business’s social role could help solve the problem

23rd September 2021

Read more

How to Save Our Planet is call to action that aims to equip everyone with the knowledge needed to make change. We need to deal with climate change, environmental destruction and global poverty, and ensure everyone’s security.

23rd September 2021

Read more

Hannah Lesbirel and Beccy Wilson speak to IEMA members about climate anxiety

23rd September 2021

Read more

Media enquires

Looking for an expert to speak at an event or comment on an item in the news?

Find an expert