Flying to a Greener future

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The aviation industry has majorly drawn global attention as it accounts for a substantial share of global carbon emissions. It is being said if no policy measures are taken, aviation's carbon pollution is forecasted to triple by 2050. The industry needs to act fast if sustainable development is its priority.
Shreya Bhattacharya

When a solar-powered airplane completed the first round-the-world flight in 2016, it just pushed the boundaries of possibilities for the entire aviation industry to see. Although a commercialisation may not yet seem to be a possible scenario, Solar Impulse 2 has surely signaled the right message that much more is there to explore the potential of renewable energy.

Global warming is a glaring reality, with serious repercussions and as tens of thousands of new aircraft get ready to take to the skies in the coming years, the aviation industry has to quickly interrupt to reduce its carbon footprint since it has been pronounced among the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from droughts, torrential rains, shrinking Arctic ice and glaciers, there could be a direct impact on the aviation industry itself in the form of severe disruptions. The International Civil Aviation Organisation or ICAO's 2016 Environmental Report says that changes to the atmosphere, brought about by rising global temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions, will affect airplane's ability to fly, while rising sea levels will affect airports. While going back to a primitive age is not an option, going ultra modern is one.

Aircraft manufacturers, in this backdrop, have been making the right moves to thrust sustainable aviation into spotlight. Aeronautics company Airbus, for instance, has joined hands with Siemens and Rolls-Royce to develop a hybrid electric engine to move away from fossil fuels and lower flying costs. The three companies have announced that the E-Fan X hybrid-electric technology demonstrator is anticipated to fly in 2020 following a comprehensive ground test campaign, provisionally on a BAe 146 flying testbed, with one of the aircraft's four gas turbine engines replaced by a two megawatt electric motor. Provisions will be made to replace a second gas turbine with an electric motor once system maturity has been proven. "The E-Fan X is an important next step in our goal of making electric flight a reality in the foreseeable future," says Paul Eremenko, chief technology officer, Airbus. "We see hybrid-electric propulsion as a compelling technology for the future of aviation."

Boeing has been separately working on lighter wing designs with NASA to reduce emissions as the race intensifies to lower flying costs and move away from fossil fuels. The aircraft manufacturer highlighted two innovative aircraft concepts namely the Blended Wing Body and the Transonic Truss-braced Wing.

"The Blended Wing Body concept has been in development since the 1990s. It forgoes the traditional tube-and-wing airplane structure in favor of a triangular aircraft that blends the vehicles wing seamlessly into the body. Through successful structures, flight and wind tunnel testing, we continue to refine and improve our concept and believe a BWB-type vehicle could be developed in the next 10 to 15 years as a subsonic transport," states Boeing.

The second concept-Transonic Truss-braced wing technology came out of the Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research, a suite of Boeing technologies developed to identify potential high payoff commercial transport concepts and technologies for the years 2030 to 2050. These concepts and technologies could enable aircraft to meet aggressive performance and environment goals. "The Transsonic Truss-braced Wing concept allows for higher span wings, which reduce induced drag and could therefore be more aerodynamic. It has been in development since 2008, including configuration design, aerodynamic design using computational fluid dynamic and wind tunnel testing, with the most recent wind tunnel testing concluding in 2016 at the NASA Ames facility."

Coming to its current offerings, Boeing states that each new aircraft it develops, including the 787, 737 MAX and 777X, is typically 15-20 percent more efficient than the airplane it replaces, which commensurately reduces carbon-dioxide emissions.

Although environment friendly fleet and infrastructure do appear as green options, it takes a hefty investment in the initial phase to work for the cause. So how willing or resilient are the air cargo industry players to invest on modern fleets that would serve to the cause of sustainability? Boeing says, "Business goals are aligned with environmental goals because the aviation market demands efficiency. Aviation has a long and consistent track record of continuous improvement in fuel efficiency. Today's aircraft are well over 70 percent more efficient and 90 percent quieter than the first jets, with continued investment by manufacturers in new technologies to further improve efficiency and reduce emissions."

Taking cognizance of the fact that aviation fuel is its largest expense item, typically accounting for more than a quarter of its total expenses, Finnair in 2017, acquired 11 new aircraft, which are about 20 percent more fuel efficient than their predecessors. The flag carrier of Finland says a two-percent increase in fuel efficiency in Finnair's traffic translates into more than 15 million kilogrammes of fuel. "In addition to various fuel efficiency projects, Finnair continued its economical flying training programme introduced in 2012 and aimed at all Finnair pilots. The aim of the training is to implement consistent operating practices and disseminate information on the factors that influence overall flight economy. Finnair's flight planning is also aimed at achieving optimal fuel efficiency by selecting the most economical route alternatives," explains Kati Ihamki, director of corporate sustainability at Finnair.

Finland is a Nordic region member which has for years been promoting green economy for growth. Walking on the same line, Finnair is now evaluating the possibility of establishing a biofuel hub at Helsinki Airport, along with its local partners. "Renewable bio-based diesel is considered a potential alternative to bio-kerosene due to its lower investments required for continuous production, and therefore lower costs. Renewable bio-based diesel has not yet received international approval for use as aviation fuel, but the approval process is underway," shares Ihamki.

As part of its long-term sustainability strategy, Finnair has also powered its cool Nordic Cargo hub at Helsinki Airport with solar power. The 1,200 panels installed on the building's roof will meet over 10 percent of the building's annual energy consumption. Each panel can produce up to 260 watt of energy, and the power output is estimated to be approximately 265 MWh/a. "Aligned with IATA's principles, we are committed to carbon neutral growth in our flight operations from 2020 onwards, and to cut our CO2 emissions by 50 percent by the year 2050. 2013-2020 our goal is to reduce emissions by 17 percent."

Another airline, which has been keenly considering biofuel as a substitute for fossil fuel is the flag carrier of Australia -- Qantas Airways. The airline has recently partnered with Quebec biofuel company, marking the first step in developing an aviation biofuel supply in Australia. The airline has also announced it will operate the world's first bio-fuel flight between the United States and Australia. The Los Angeles to Melbourne flight will fly in January 2018 and will see Qantas' new Dreamliner being powered by Brassica Carinata (carinata), a non-food, industrial type of mustard seed. Carinata produces high quality oil, ideal for aviation biofuel, bio-jet for aircraft and bio-diesel for airport vehicles.

The airline however mentions that there has not yet been a locally grown option for renewable jet fuel at the scale they need to power their fleet. "Our work with Agrisoma (Canada based agricultural-technology company) will enable Australian farmers to start growing today for the country's biofuel needs of the future. The trans-Pacific biofuel flight in January 2018 is a demonstration of what can be achieved locally," shares Flyn Van Ewijk, manager, Qantas Group Fuel and Environment.

Apart from biofuels, the efforts to operate planes more sustainably span a range of initiatives from flying lighter, to improving how to fly to refining the procedures on the ground, point out industry players. Shaving off a sizeable amount of weight, the new aerospace coating technologies are finding way into the industry, making application more eco-friendly and sustainable. Explains Air Canada Cargo's vice-president Tim Strauss, "Air Canada's new livery paint system uses latest technology Base Coat Clear Coat, designed to reduce our carbon footprint through significant weight saving as compared to our previous livery. It features no chrome, lead or other heavy metals and is expected to last longer (approximately 11 years) when compared to standard paint (6-7 years). The new livery is also far less complex, producing less waste, among other benefits." New products and designs made with lighter materials have also been introduced within the aircraft to save fuel.

Solar Implulse
Solar Impulse

Air Canada has retrofitted 12 Boeing 767-300ER (763) aircraft with blended winglets that reduce drag and improve the wing's aerodynamics, curbing yearly carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 2,800 tonnes of CO2e for every aircraft, shares Strauss. With these efforts and optimisation of operational practices, the airline claims to have marked a 40 percent improvement in average fuel efficiency between 1990 and 2016.

In the very centre of the efforts towards a sustainable aviation environment, the idea of converting the airports into an eco-friendly infrastructure is imperative. Airports have always been an immense source of pollution that is emitted from planes taking off and landing. According to a 2010 report from NASA, about 25 percent of airplane emissions come from landing and taking off. Airports globally are taking cognizance of the fact and are pursuing ambitious environmental programme.

The Royal Schiphol Group has announced that Amsterdam Schiphol and its entire Dutch airport network will utilise wind power from 2018. The electricity will be provided by wind farms operated by renewable energy company, Eneco. Eneco will also supply Rotterdam The Hague Airport, Eindhoven Airport and Lelystad Airport with sustainable power from January 1, 2018. On asking what other latest technologies the Amsterdam Airport is using to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, Jonas van Stekelenburg head of cargo, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol said, "We have approximately 40 electric busses that transport people, and these buses make use of electric energy produced by Photovoltaic cells at our own airport. We also have up to 200 electric Tesla Taxis that transport people to and from the airport, and we have installed wherever possible low voltage lightning systems. The latest development is that we also use this on the runway. Airside, we have a policy to electrify as much as possible to reduce emissions. This concerns vehicles but also APUs of airplanes."
For Munich Airport, re-investing profits in climate-friendly infrastructure is a win-win situation: economically and environmentally. "By 2030 the airport will become Germany's first carbon-neutral airport," says Christoph Ertl, vice president financial management, service division engineering and facilities, Munich Airport. The airport generates over half of its on-site energy requirements using environmentally-friendly natural gas. The produced heat is used to keep the terminal buildings warm in winter while absorption refrigeration units are used to cool them down in summer. The airport is poised to invest a total of 150 million Euros by 2030 for the climate protection programme.

But does investments on sustainable infrastructure improves long term financial returns? Ertl says, "In the last five years (2012-2016) Munich Airport invested approximately 5.2 million Euros in 'energy efficiency measures.' Among those measures are the installation of LED lighting on the aprons, streets, driveways and buildings, the renewal of the motors of the baggage handling system, as well as an optimised control system and exchanged motors for the central ventilation station. These measures help to prevent up to 12,000 tonnes of CO2 per year and help to save 2.6 million Euros annually. The payback period of these measures is around 2.3 years. In the course of Munich Airport's climate strategy %u2018CO2 neutrality 2030', additional measures to reduce CO2 emissions will be realised from 2017 onwards."

India's Cochin International Airport became power neutral in August 2015 and has been acclaimed as the world's first airport fully powered by solar energy.  At present, the solar panels laid in the airport produce an electricity of 27.7 MWp (mega watt peak). And the process of scaling it upto 40 MWp is progressing rapidly. By the end of March 2018, with the full swing operation of 40 MWp plants, on an average the airport will get 1.6 lakh units of power a day; whereas the consumption is expected to be around 1.3 lakh units. "When we had realised that the power bill is on the higher side, we contemplated possibilities. Then the idea of tapping the green power came in. We consume around 48,000 unit (KWh) a day. So if we can produce the same, that too by strictly adhering to the green and sustainable development model of infrastructure development that we always follow, that would transcend a message to the world," said VJ Kurian founder managing director, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL).

Till date CIAL has produced more than 4 crore units of solar energy worth approximately Rs 30 crores. With the commissioning of the new International Terminal building T3 in April 2017, the airport's requirement was expected to increase to more than 1 lakh units a day. In order to maintain its status as a fully solar powered airport, CIAL had taken steps to increase the solar capacity from 15.5 MWp to approximately 40 MWp.

As we head towards a future with limited resources and increased demand, the obligation to take green measures falls on us irrefutably. While many air cargo players are making smart inroads into sustainability, the entire industry needs to come onboard.

Following the success of the first solar flight around the world, the Solar Impulse Foundation has launched the second phase of its action: selecting 1000 solutions that can protect the environment in a profitable way. "Through the newly created World Alliance for Efficient Solutions, Bertrand Piccard (initiator, chairman, and co-pilot, with Andr Borschberg, of Solar Impulse) wants to federate the actors in the field of clean technologies and shed light on existing solutions and bring them to decision makers to encourage them to adopt more ambitious environmental targets and energy policies," said a spokesperson of the Solar Impulse Foundation.

The World Alliance, which at present already counts 474 members together combine more than 500 potential solutions. "Examples of potential solutions already submitted by members range from deep water offshore turbines, solar desalination plants, containers to transform organic waste into energy, air filters that capture C02 emissions and turn them into renewable fuels, hydrogen-based devices that can be added on cars to increase fuel efficiency, to free electric car chargers. Over the next year (2018), all submitted solutions will be assessed by independent scientific and financial experts following a structured methodology designed to evaluate their deployability, sustainability and viability," informed the spokesperson.

There is no denying the fact that the industry understands its responsibility and is trying to cut down on emissions. So far, there have been around 2,500 successful flights fuelled by biofuels-some based on isobutanol produced from corn, others from the oil of nicotine-free tobacco plants. However, in order to maintain the ecological balance, the airline industry's promised technological solutions need to be scaled up and realised at the earliest.

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