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The United Nations created an international environmental treaty to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gases in June 1992. On Oct. 5, 2021, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency, stated that “global civil aviation operations will achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, supported by accelerated efficiency measures, energy transition, and innovation across the aviation sector.” Simultaneously, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) championed the 2050 goal.
With less than 28 years to go, the global aviation industry has an intriguing challenge. From massive aerospace corporations to tiny entrepreneurial start-ups, myriad parties are looking to create renewable energy-based engines for currently operating and all-new fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. While they will have to be ecologically friendly, these new products will also have to be financially viable for both the manufacturer and the operator.
Green Aviation Technologies
The three key technologies related to green aviation are sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), electricity, and hydrogen.
SAF is produced from sustainable feedstocks such as canola, vegetable or used cooking oils, organic municipal waste, wood waste, or even algae. It can be blended up to 50 percent with Jet A-1 fuel. SAF is viewed as the most effective near-term method of reducing the industry’s carbon footprint, however, there are a couple of issues: availability and high price.
IATA has stated that global production of SAF currently represents approximately 0.1 percent of all aviation fuel and that its cost is two to four times higher than fossil fuels. LanzaJet of Deerfield, Illinois, produces SAF and is working to increase production capacity so that prices can move down towards price parity with the traditional jet fuel. Its investors include Suncor Energy, British Airways, Shell, and All Nippon Airways.
SAF is viewed by many as an interim step towards sustainable aviation. The longer term goal is to introduce engines that use electricity, hydrogen, or a hybrid of the two. These would then be attached to existing aircraft (either new build or retrofitted), as well as to clean-sheet design models. While there are too many programs to detail in this article, it is worth briefly noting some of the projects of the leading engine and aircraft manufacturers.
Rolls-Royce: In March 2021, Rolls-Royce, the Italian aircraft maker Tecnam, and the Norwegian airline Wideroe. announced that they will be developing an all-electric commuter airliner for the Scandinavian market by 2026. Based on a Tecnam P2012 Traveller, the P-Volt would carry nine passengers for 85 nautical miles.
Pratt & Whitney Canada: In July 2021, PW&C announced that it would be working with De Havilland to develop a hybrid-electric powered demonstrator based on a Dash 8-100 regional airliner. They are targeting a 30 percent reduction in fuel burn and CO2 emissions. Ground testing is expected to begin in 2022, with flight testing following in 2024.
GE Aviation: In October 2021, General Electric announced that it and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were going to flight test a hybrid-electric propulsion system on a modified Saab 340B testbed equipped with GE CT7-9B turboprops by the mid-2020s. The US$260 million project will be funded over five years by GE Aviation, NASA, and others.
ZeroAvia: In October 2021, this British/American outfit stated that it would work with Alaska Air Group of Seattle to modify a De Havilland Dash 8-400 with its ZA2000 hydrogen-electric engines. The intention is to create an aircraft that can carry 76 passengers over 500 nautical miles without producing any emissions. Two months later, ZeroAvia signed a memorandum of understanding with De Havilland to develop a line-fit and retrofit program for the Dash 8-400 family. A flight demonstrator will be built for the certification process and subsequent marketing efforts. The aircraft is expected to be in service by late 2026. That month, ZeroAvia also announced that United Airlines planned to purchase up to 100 ZA2000-RJ engines for the modification of 50 Mitsubishi CRJ550 regional airliners. Certification is expected during 2028.
MagniX: The Everett, Washington-based company is involved in several fascinating projects including a 750hp/560kW magni500 electric-engined DHC-2 Beaver owned by Harbour Air of Richmond, British Columbia. The eBeaver first flew on Dec. 10, 2019. The same engine powered a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan of Sydney Seaplanes in Australia. The eCaravan first flew on May 28, 2020. Harbour Air, magniX, and H55, a Swiss battery maker, plan to certify the eBeaver through a supplemental type certificate (STC) program.
While the three largest commercial aircraft OEMs (Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer) have been working on green energy concepts, they are research and development programs. It appears that the certification of electric or hydrogen powered airliners is a decade or two away. There are, however, a large number of new entrants working on unique designs that, at the very least, look extremely attractive in artists’ renderings.
Bye Aerospace of Englewood, Colorado, is developing a twin-electric-engine corporate/commuter aircraft. The eFlyer 800 would accommodate six to 10 passengers and two pilots.
Eviation Aircraft of Qadima, Israel, is working on a twin-engine aircraft that would carry six passengers in an executive configuration or nine as a shuttle. Named Alice, it would be powered by a pair of 870 hp (640 kW) magni650 electric engines. Expectations are to have a range of 440nm (815km) while cruising at 220 kts. Certification is targeted for 2024. DHL Express has ordered 12 freighter versions.
Heart Aerospace of Gothenburg, Sweden, plans to have its ES-19 regional airliner certified by 2026. The high-winged, T-tailed aircraft is powered by four Heart-designed electric engines. It is expected to be able to fly 215 nm (400 km) while cruising at 180 kts.
While many new fixed-wing aircraft are being developed, electric-powered rotary-wing models are even more popular. In January 2021, the Vertical Flight Society announced that it was aware of 600 electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) models designed by nearly 350 companies worldwide.
A survey of the multitude of green technology-related aviation projects around the world reveals that Canada is not a major player. While Pratt & Whitney Canada and De Havilland are both participating, only Harbour Air’s eBeaver has received any attention in the general aviation sector. To learn why this is so and what might be done to improve Canada’s role, Skies spoke with Christopher Baczynski – the founder and CEO of BAC Aerospace in Greater Ottawa.
The aerospace consultancy provides expertise in aircraft certification and engineering services to companies seeking Transport Canada certification of a new type design or a design modification using a supplemental type certificate. It specializes in aircraft propulsion and the associated powerplant subsystems for general aviation and transport category aircraft, be they fixed-winged or helicopters.
When Skies asked if there was a reason for Canada’s relatively small presence in this burgeoning niche, he said, “This phenomenon is driven by how our industry is segmented. The currently available electric propulsion technology, due to its range limitations, is best suited to the general aviation and commuter aircraft markets, an area that has not seen much investment in Canada in this century. On the flip side, hydrogen-based propulsion, best suited for companies like Bombardier, is still about a decade or so away from being technologically viable.”
In an effort to stimulate home-grown green aviation activity, BAC and its technical expert partners have created the Canadian Greener Aircraft Certification Initiative (CGACI). Baczynski explained, “We are looking for the key missing ingredient: aircraft manufacturers, be they existing or start-ups, with the necessary production facilities.
“First, we intend to focus on the most promising aircraft designs that that do not compete with one another,” Baczynski continued. “Next, we would assist with the detailed design phase and take the aircraft through the regulatory approval process.”
Asked if the CGACI sees venture capitalists as potential partners, he replied, “Absolutely! Adequate funding and technical viability go hand-in-hand. We can assure the latter, but only if the necessary investment capital can be raised.”