Rolls-Royce races to decarbonise aircraft industry with new technologies
Picture this: if the aviation industry were a country, it would be the sixth-largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world after China, the United States, India, Russia, and Japan, according to a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
The study indicates that aviation is responsible for around 4% of human-caused global warming, and if current trends continue it will be responsible for an increase in warming of about 0.1 degrees Celsius (0.2 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050.
It is estimated that 4.3 billion passenger journeys were made in 2018 before the Covid-19 pandemic struck. While the pandemic halted most global travel, and aviation traffic fell by 45% in 2020, it’s also true that earlier CO2 emissions have remained in the environment for hundreds of years. They don’t just disappear.
While this recent disruption in air travel may have slowed the advance of warming by around five years, that is of minor value compared with aviation’s total climate impact on the world.
Aviation engines undeniably play a huge role in climate change and its effects.
Some researchers do not believe that zero-carbon emissions can be achieved with aviation fuels, but a major aviation engine maker, Rolls-Royce, is a firm believer that “sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)” is among the technological breakthroughs critical to achieve a net-zero future by 2050.
“Using sustainable aviation fuel to power gas turbine engine rather than jet fuel used today will dramatically reduce CO2 emissions,” Dr Bicky Bhangu, Rolls-Royce President for Southeast Asia, Pacific and South Korea, based in Singapore, said during a recent visit to Bangkok.
Without doing anything, the curve (see the grey line in the chart) will keep rising, he added.
Rolls-Royce realises that most of its products contribute to some of the most carbon-intensive parts of the economy, and the company is choosing to make all its products SAF-compatible and using technology to drive incremental improvements in efficiency.
On the one hand, the company has existing products with a long lifecycle that need to be altered to be compatible with the net-zero requirement. On the other hand, it must come up with new technologies to drive its growth amid heated competition from other engine makers.
The British aircraft engine maker has thus lined up a wide range of technologies, including electric and hydrogen power and propulsion, to change the landscape and ecosystem of the aviation industry and that of other businesses such as civil aerospace, power generation, defence, shipping, and rail on the journey to net zero.
Rolls-Royce’s products and services are essential to ensure that they can help decarbonise transportation across air, land, and sea.
How does Rolls-Royce forge ahead on the path to net zero?
In 2020, Rolls-Royce joined the UN High-Level Climate Champions to launch “Race to Zero”, the UN’s campaign to mobilise the leadership of the world’s businesses, cities, and investors to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
Rolls-Royce has pledged to do its share to help the world hold the rise in global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius by using its technological prowess to help key sectors of the economy reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, as outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change.
But Rolls-Royce alone cannot do the entire work regarding the development of sustainability. It recognises that global collaboration and partnerships are essential.
“Sustainable aviation fuel, for example, has challenges, which are price and scale,” said Dr Bicky. “That needs government regulators, suppliers, and engine makers to come together as an ecosystem to form the same agenda for the market.”
Rolls-Royce is focusing on three major technological leaps: engine efficiency, small modular reactor (SMR), and electrical technology.
Rolls-Royce already makes the world’s most efficient large civil aero-engine in service, the Trent XWB, and its successor, UltraFan®. They are respectively 15% and 25% more efficient than the first-generation Trent engines. Using SAF with UltraFan will significantly improve the economics.
The aviation industry is expected to continue expanding in the near-to-medium future. Therefore, greater engine efficiency alone won’t significantly reduce CO2 emissions overall. That will require a better aviation fuel: SAF
The goal of “carbon-neutral” air travel is lofty but not unachievable.
It will be quite some time before electric-hybrid or hydrogen-powered aircraft of any practical size are introduced to aviation. Here, progress in aviation battery technology, alongside storage of huge volumes of hydrogen are required.
However, SAF today is a viable alternative to traditional jet fuel that may be used in airplanes with no major modifications. When combined with cutting-edge planes and engines, SAF represents a crucial development for a greener future in aviation.
“By 2023, all our current civil aero engines will be 100% SAF compatible,” he said.
For the second innovation, Rolls-Royce has set up an SMR business and designed an SMR power plant, which has the capacity to generate 470 megawatts of low-carbon energy and with the potential to transform ways to power cities or industrial processes.
“The technology that differentiates Rolls-Royce is SMR,” Dr Bicky said. “It’s not to generate only electricity, but electricity that can be used to manufacture the hydrogen or SAF, which are energy-intensive manufacturing processes. We’ve got to break the hydro-carbon link of all value-chains from the beginning all the way to the end — and SMR allows us to do that.”
For its third breakthrough, in electrical technology, Rolls-Royce has made large investments in electrical technologies and is building a leading position in power and propulsion technologies for all-electric and hybrid-electric flight.
Spirit of Innovation
It’s hard to imagine how to fly an airplane with only electric power, but an all-electric plane has already broken the world’s all-electric flight speed record.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded Rolls-Royce three world records for its groundbreaking battery-powered aircraft, the “Spirit of Innovation”.
On November 16, 2021, the aircraft hit a top speed of 555.9 km/h (300kt) over a distance of three kilometres, shattering the previous record for electric aircraft held by Siemens' Extra 330LE in 2017 by a massive 115kt.
In a later run from Boscombe Down, the Spirit broke the previous record over a 15km track by 158kt, reaching 532.1km/h (287kt).
Additionally, it set a new record for the fastest ascent of 3,000 metres in just 202 seconds, or nearly 2,924 feet per minute, beating the previous mark by 60 seconds.
According to Rolls-Royce, the aircraft is the world’s fastest all-electric vehicle of any kind. During its record-breaking runs, the aircraft reached a top speed of 623 km/h (337kt).
“The first flight of the ‘Spirit of Innovation’ was a great achievement,” said Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East.
“We are focused on producing the technology breakthroughs that society needs to decarbonise transport across air, land, and sea, and capture the economic opportunity of the transition to net zero.
“This is not only about breaking a world record. The advanced battery and propulsion technology developed for this programme has exciting applications for the urban air mobility market and can help make net zero a reality,” East said.
For Rolls-Royce and its dedicated staff, the “Spirit of Innovation” proves that fully electric aircraft are within the realm of possibility. Despite the Covid-19 pandemic having rocked the aviation industry and delayed the development plans of many companies, Rolls-Royce has moved forward with a strong portfolio of technologies to achieve its net-zero target.
“At this point, I can tell we will be better off than we were in 2019,” said Dr Bicky. “When Rolls-Royce gets there, it’s not just Roll-Royce’s win, but that of the aviation industry, including supply chains as well.”
More than 400 airlines and leasing companies, 160 armed forces and navies, and more than 5,000 companies use the services of Rolls-Royce in more than 150 countries.
In 2021, the company spent £1.18 billion on R&D, in addition to assisting a network of 28 university technology centres throughout the world. Around 70% of research and development budget will be spent on sustainability technologies.
Rolls-Royce joined the UN High-Level Climate Champions to launch the “Race to Zero”, the UN’s campaign to mobilise leadership of the world’s businesses, cities, and investors to commit to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.
As part of this, Rolls-Royce has committed to aligning its business and value chain to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the rise in global temperature to 1.5°C by using its technological capabilities and playing a leading role in enabling vital parts of the economy achieve net-zero carbon by 2050.
Rolls-Royce announces its pathway to become net zero by 2050.
All in-production civil aero engines are to be proven compatible with 100% sustainable aviation fuels.
Increase the proportion of gross R&D spent on lower carbon and net-zero technologies from approximately 50% to 75%.
All new products are to be compatible with net zero; reduce lifetime emissions of newly sold products from Power Systems by 35%; new generation Series 2000, 4000 engines to be certified for sustainable fuel. All facilities and operations (excluding product testing and development) achieve net zero.
Whole business compatible.