By Captain Blaz Berdnik, TRE / December 18th, 2019
There are many variations of what the future will bring in aviation and hundreds of opinions. Most of us agree on the fact that the current model of mass air travel is environmentally unsustainable and that something has to be done in this department. Aviation for masses has fully arrived about a decade or so ago and Africa now being the only continent in the world that still has to adapt this concept in full.
Discussion about future propulsion systems for cars and aircraft is quite intense. Hybrid, electric, hydrogen, etc…Electric propulsion in aviation has future potential for sure. But the challenges are enormous. Recharging times, power source weight and safety challenges, range, and environmental issues. The problem is that a huge amount of electric energy these days is generated by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, natural gas, etc. In 2014 a full 41% of the world’s electricity was generated from coal and 22% from natural gas. So with the current power generating technology, introduction in electric cars and aircraft is just moving emissions from one source to another. From the final consumer (electric aircraft or car) to the energy generation at the power plant. Not a very smart way of doing things until we can find a way to generate power with zero or minimum emissions. So are you really going Green when buying an electric car of flying an electric-powered aircraft? Is this really zero emissions? I don’t think so. At least not in most parts of the world. With wind and solar potential at the moment (or in the very near future) being at only maybe 6-10% there are no easy solutions. Especially for transportation. So electric propulsion solves absolutely nothing until we can find a clean way to generate power.
Environmental issues are extremely complex and 16 years old kids like Greta T. will not solve them for sure. When I fly a commercial airliner we are burning tons of aviation fuel per day, hundreds of tons per month. But if you look at the numbers, we are burning approximately 15 liters per hour of flight per passenger. All this while covering 850 km in air distance. If you want to cover that same distance in a car you would probably need about 70-80 liters of gasoline or diesel. Even if you put four passengers in that automobile (an extremely rare case in the EU or the US) you are still using about 20 liters per passenger. Most cases over 40-50 liters. And that journey will take you approximately ten times longer. 1 hour compared to 10 hours. If you go with an electric car you don’t solve the problem at all. Your battery energy in that car was most likely generated in a local coal-powered plant (so no emission reduction at all), the battery has a life span and it needs recycling so creating dangerous waste problems, new recharging and servicing infrastructure has to be built creating even more emissions. Not to mention oceans, mountains and other natural barriers that make this kind of travel extremely unpractical and sometimes impossible. It’s very hard to drive from Tokyo to Sidney.
Aviation is reducing its carbon footprint. New geared turbofan engines (GTF) that are being installed on most of the new commercial airliners are offering a 16% reduction in fuel consumption, a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 75% reduction in noise levels. The typical GTF engine installed on an A320 NEO is saving about 360 L of fuel per hour. So impressive numbers if you consider that this is only the first generation of GTF engine development. The potential here is huge.
Aircraft propulsion systems need years of testing in order to develop them to the safety levels that are acceptable for airline operations. However first steps in electrically power commercial flight have been made and world-first fully-electric commercial aircraft has taken its inaugural flight in Canada a few days ago. A small DHC-2, 6 passenger Beaver. Decades-old and proven aluminum design with an electrical propulsion system. Nice combination. Humble beginnings with a range of the aircraft being just about 180 kilometers. Approximately 10% of the required range and about 4% of the required payload for most airline operations.
Commercial airliners that are rolling of the production lines in Seattle and Toulouse today will probably still be in service 20-30 years from now. Technologically advanced and sophisticated airliners are extremely expensive and owners will want to use their potential in full. Over their whole life span of 30 years or so. These aircraft are made to make money over a long period of time. So nobody will retire an airliner worth 50-100 million US Dollars before its actual life span has ended. And even then they will be retrofitted and modified for cargo or other special operations.
Implementation of electrical propulsion technology is a complex and time consuming matter. With millions of lives at stake and after the latest 737-MAX certification fiasco, the regulators will be extremely reluctant and careful before any Certification will be completed. These things take time. A lot of time and money. So saying that this electric propulsion technology is just behind the corner is a major exaggeration. Airlines will fly improved and more fuel efficient GTF turbofan engines for years to come, while we will probably see small aircraft experimenting with other sources of propulsion. Do you really want to be flying as a passenger on a commercial airliner in an untested and underdeveloped electric propulsion system manufactured in some garage 12 months ago? I don’t.
It is also absolutely paramount to have a more legal framework for testing and development in general aviation and at lower levels of microlight and non-regulated parts of the industry. Regulations need to be set before some garage manufacturer start crashing experimental aircraft, killing people in the air and on the ground. This kind of testing should be done at isolated test facilities with professional test pilots and engineers and not at your local Aero-club. Remember that we all share the same airspace. Electric microlight accidents that we have seen lately across Europe are the perfect example of how NOT to do things. Aviation is a serious business where people die if we start taking shortcuts. As proven many times in the past. Hopefully, some regulations will be put in place before we start writing them in blood like so many times before.