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Electrification in aerospace: Strategy and Roadmap

Electrification in aerospace: Strategy and Roadmap

The unprecedented events of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic have had a profound impact on the aviation industry. WMG spoke to Mark Scully, Head of Technology for Advanced Systems & Propulsion at the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), about how current events may change the strategy and roadmap to the electrification of aerospace.

Mark agrees with many in the industry that it is unlikely that aviation will continue to enjoy the strong passenger number growth of recent years, and until a return to something like normal, “the crystal ball will remain cloudy as to how quickly numbers will recover”.

Whether this means the electrification agenda is on hold or will accelerate is the million-dollar question. Mark feels the market opportunity for electrification of large commercial transport aircraft will be pushed back, but the goals are still there and as pressing as ever. Numerous strategies are being employed to achieve these goals:

“The ATI strategy has charted the route to zero net carbon through a combination of developing propulsion systems, lightweight multifunctional structures and aerodynamics to improve aircraft efficiency. In parallel there must be development of new UK technology infrastructure to accelerate UK aircraft electrification and associated supply chain, as well as securing critical technologies and capabilities for hydrogen and the production of e-fuels.”

The most exciting and disruptive areas in electrification are the sub-regional category and urban air mobility (UAM) markets which are the most likely candidates for full electrification.

AirBus Blueprint for the Sky

Alternative fuels will have a strong role to play in aerospace decarbonisation, and whichever the chemistry it will require a step change from current thinking. For example, hydrogen fuel cells have been touted as an attractive option due to hydrogen’s energy density. However, the enormous infrastructure demands that hydrogen’s widespread use would require is not something that can be achieved by one sector in isolation. Fuel cells are better for the environment than burning hydrogen, but hydrogen combustion still produces less emissions than burning kerosene. Another under-explored option is creating the hydrocarbons needed for conventional jet fuel with hydrogen. Sustainable fuels like biobased kerosene and recovered jet fuel will also have a part to play, especially for larger aircraft.

Mark is confident that the UK is well placed on the global aerospace electrification landscape; the ATI are seeing “many key aerospace players coming to the UK to do some level of electrification”. The UK’s existing capabilities, expertise, infrastructure and industry involvement in R&D make us very attractive in terms of electrification activity. The ATI’s discussion with the likes of Airbus and Boeing make it clear that they are both “keen to explore opportunities in the UK”.

Finally, to help the industry emerge from the current situation, Mark believes that funding should be targeted at small businesses to promote innovation in the supply chain and, in parallel, attention should turn to larger businesses to maintain the direction on strategic R&D for mobility, sustainability and competitiveness.

Mark Scully, Head of Technology for Advanced Systems & Propulsion at the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI)