Net-zero aviation set for take-off

Air travel is back on the agenda post-COVID, but every conventional flight carries with it some climate baggage, in the form of emissions. Aviation is one of the most carbon-intensive modes of transport and its decarbonisation is key to achieving net-zero goals. So, can airport infrastructure evolve fast enough for the UK to hit its targets by 2050?

Cutting carbon calls for a complex mix of technologies and solutions, including use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, as well as both hydrogen-powered and electric aircraft. Additional infrastructure and support systems will also be needed. Airport operators must therefore start planning the infrastructure now to support the aircraft of the near future.

The Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure (ZEFI) programme, led by Connected Places Catapult in collaboration with the Department for Transport, brings together the necessary expertise in the aviation, transport and energy industries, as well as government and academia, to address the climate issue.

Technology being tested now

The technology needed is being developed now. UK test flights have been completed for both hydrogen fuel-cell and all-electric aircraft. Electric light aircraft are already available, with zero emission short-haul commercial services due by the 2030s.

The infrastructure for zero-emission aviation is very different to that for conventional fuels. ZEFI has looked at requirements for hydrogen (gaseous and liquid) and electric (battery swapping and charging), within the airport boundary. Integration of these new systems will have significant planning, construction, installation, and operational implications.

This new zero-emission infrastructure will not, however, replace the majority of existing fuelling systems. Instead, a significant proportion of flights (particularly long-haul) will transition to Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), rather than electric or hydrogen propulsion Being a ‘drop-in’ replacement for jet fuel, SAF requires minimal changes to be made.

Key challenges to address

The challenges of zero-emission aviation do, though, bring new opportunities for innovation and collaboration. ZEFI has identified four core areas for working together:

  1. Technology Readiness — with zero-emission aircraft and infrastructure still a work in progress, a phased approach in airports will support innovation and allow for agility;
  2. Operations — different technologies will be needed, depending on passenger volumes, airport sizes, aircraft types and routes, so there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution;
  3. Standardisation — efforts remain in their early stages, therefore ZEFI encourages flexibility in engineering and modular design to permit changes as systems evolve; and
  4. Parallel Demands — new hydrogen and electric technologies will run alongside conventional aviation fuels, requiring additional physical space and trained personnel.

Next steps towards net zero

ZEFI undertakes a number of work streams that provide opportunities and insights for the UK aviation community to access. It shares best practices across transport, energy, and other sectors, to help airports and airfields get ready for zero-emission aircraft.

Engagement with ZEFI can help aviation, academia and supporting industries align their own research and technology development with airport needs and masterplans.

As well as conducting stakeholder engagement and detailed studies, the programme has funded 15 projects under the first ZEFI Transport Research and Innovation Grant.

ZEFI is also planning demonstrations to showcase UK technology and innovation, plus help build understanding in the use of hydrogen and batteries in airside environments.

To learn more about ZEFI, including the various technology options for the future of aviation in a net-zero world, download the Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure White Paper.

CP Catapult – Zero Emission Flight Infrastructure White Paper
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