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The race to jet zero - is emission-free transatlantic air travel really possible?

6 min read

Like his garden bridges and sub-sea tunnels, announcing the UK was going to pioneer the first emission-free transatlantic aircraft had the hallmarks of what critics describe as one of Boris Johnson’s vanity projects. It was an ambitious and typically eye-catching promise, delivered in the brief lull in the coronavirus pandemic last July.

Like his garden bridges and sub-sea tunnels, announcing the UK was going to pioneer the first emission-free transatlantic aircraft had the hallmarks of what critics describe as one of Boris Johnson’s vanity projects. It was an ambitious and typically eye-catching promise, delivered in the brief lull in the coronavirus pandemic last July.

The cutting-edge jet technology was the centrepiece of his recent 10-point “green industrial revolution plan” to “build back greener” and bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

The damage aviation is doing to the planet is sizeable, with millions of tonnes of carbon released by airlines every year. Pre-pandemic, eight per cent of the UK’s carbon emissions came from airlines.

Shortly after his announcement, the futuristic sounding Jet Zero Council was convened with dozens of aviation and green technology experts, academics and representatives from commercial airlines, and government ministers.

Before last week, the council had met just once in full and the government has only just appointed a chief executive.

However, despite a lack of visibility, those involved have said plans are gathering pace and the technology being worked on is truly groundbreaking.

Briefly, the hallowed zero-emission flight from the UK to the US could be achieved through sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which includes the zero-carbon fuel hydrogen, and the use of electric and battery systems. (It isn’t possible to get across the Atlantic using batteries alone – they’re so huge, there wouldn’t be any room for passengers.)

Sergey Kiselev, the European chief of ZeroAvia, a Jet Zero Council member and pioneer of hydrogen-electric powered passenger planes in the UK, said: “We believe this is a chance for UK aviation to be the first in the pack. We have all the ingredients. We have all the important players: us, Rolls-Royce, GKN, and the Aerospace Technology Institute.

“Those are the bits and pieces which will contribute to getting the mission done.”

Kiselev said he understands the criticism of a lack of visible action thus far, but projects are progressing behind the scenes.

Insisting the schemes really will get off the ground, he joked: “They’re not just full of air.”

The Jet Zero group has been asked by government to fast-track UK production of fuels, and accelerate the design, manufacture and, crucially, the commercial operation of zero-emission aircraft.

According to the minutes of the council’s first meeting, Johnson said he had ambitious goals for aviation and wanted the “first zero-emission commercial transatlantic passenger flight by 2025”. This is five years earlier than a date most of those involved in the scheme seem to be working to.

To kickstart the global race against countries like the US, and the European Union, an initial £15m from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has been ploughed into a 12-month “FlyZero” study, where experts will examine what kind of aircraft could fly from 2030.

It is led by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) with 100 staff seconded from industry and academia to work on the project. They should report back later this year on their initial findings.

Whether a 2025 target is feasible, Kiselev explained, is down to strict interpretations of what zero-emission means.

The technology his company is working on is hydrogen-based and leads to absolute zero emissions.

Kiselev said ZeroAvia’s method involves hydrogen and oxygen. The by-product is water, which condenses in the air to form small icicles that fall like snow.

However, of synthetic aviation fuels, he said: “They effectively produce net zero-emissions, but other emissions as well, like nitrogen oxide, or water contrails, so it’s not really true zero-emission, it’s zero carbon emission.”

ZeroAvia carried out the first hydrogen fuel cell-powered flight of a commercial aircraft at its facility in Cranfield, Bedfordshire. The company hopes to build up the distance travelled incrementally, so its aircraft could eventually operate on some of the world’s most popular routes such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, or London to Edinburgh. It estimates that, by 2040, its technology could power a 200-seat plane with a range of 5,000 nautical miles which could clear the Atlantic.

On the 2025 target enthusiastically set by the Prime Minister, Gary Elliott, the chief executive officer of the ATI, said: “I’ve been advocating to the [Jet Zero] council to let FlyZero make its conclusions. It’s a project that’s about trying to figure out what is the best route to the ultimate target that is 2050. It may be [that] we do it in stages.

“It might be we decide actually it’s best to demonstrate this technology on a regional aircraft in the UK then build up to an aircraft that might fly across the Atlantic.”

To get across the Atlantic, because of the enormous battery issue, the solution would have to be a sustainable aviation fuel. However, a holiday to Europe is more feasible by battery power.

Funding to scale up initial research is now the next hurdle. The ATI gets £150m from government a year, and has asked for an extra £30m until 2036 and an additional £300m-a-year to specifically fund the new-generation technologies.

Of the money, Elliott said: “Even that’s relatively cautious. These are big challenges. The reason we call it third-generation is it’s a generational shift in the way aeroplanes will function and look. It’s almost akin to the creation of the jet engine in some ways; it’s a total change.”

Europe and the US are both competitors on this technology, so the emission-free race is real, he added.

“Given the new Biden administration, you won’t be surprised the US is massively into this,” Elliot said. “They’re number one in terms of aerospace, so we’re always competing with them. But it’s also a very collaborative sector.

“Beyond that, France and Germany are our big competitors, and China as well.”

Dan Rutherford, aviation programme director for the International Council on Clean Transportation, is also sceptical about the 2025 target, although he added that globally there is a feeling this is an “intense warm up period” before this technology truly takes off.

He said the UK government’s level of investment so far has been “pretty small” and doesn’t match the level of ambition you’d need to do the transatlantic trip by the middle of the decade.

“If that is achieved it would be a one-off, I think,” he said. “The year 2025? That is very, very quick.

“Alternative fuels, where they’re used, are in limited amounts and the fuel is blended into the existing jet fuel supply. The idea of a zero-carbon flight in 2025 [is] at best a plane that gets a special tank of fuel and makes ‘a’ flight and the next day you don’t know what it’s going to operate on.”

He said if the UK government does vastly improve its funding levels for green aviation, it should be ploughing resources into hydrogen over other sustainable forms of fuel.

In the meantime, he thinks the government could do a lot more to make sure passengers know how carbon-emitting their flight might be once people start flying again after the pandemic.

“Our research shows the carrier you chose, and the flight, makes a very big difference on the carbon intensity,” he said. “Providing consumers [with] data on emissions when they purchase a ticket could have a surprisingly large impact. The difference in carbon intensity between carriers can be up to 50 per cent.”

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