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Will the aviation of the future be more ecological?

Airbus wants to fly on hydrogen in 2035

Since the beginning of the 20th century, we have used the airplane for commercial and recreational purposes. This invention has brought people from all over the world closer together. However, today, means of transportation are considered as polluting and impacting considerably the climate.

Since the appearance, in 1995, of summits organized to discuss environmental issues, we have become aware that the aviation industry is a major source of pollution.

Since then, the claims concerning the impact of this sector have pushed it to think of a greener future.

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Commercial aviation accounts for about 2.5% of man-made carbon dioxide emissions on earth. A figure that could increase further with the growth of air traffic. Therefore, more and more research, studies and tests are being carried out.

Today, a certain number of innovations are being developed to reduce this impact and the aviation sector has set itself the objective of emitting no more greenhouse gases by 2050.

The current challenge is twofold: on the consumer side, to reduce air travel, for example, by favoring other forms of transportation, especially for short trips; and on the airline side, to radically reduce the ecological impact. Sean Newsum, director of environmental strategy at Boeing, explains that the “challenge is to reduce emissions and decarbonize airplanes, not to stop people from traveling.”

Future airplanes will no longer be able to be fueled by fossil-based jet fuel. For this reason, other solutions must be found.

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But what do we find in the aviation of the future?

Supersonic, solar-powered or hydrogen-powered aircraft with more flexible and longer wings. These are “greener” aircraft, less heavy and require less fuel. It should be noted that the focus is on long-haul aircraft, as small aircraft are lighter and consume less fuel than airliners.

Various projects under development

In order to preserve air mobility while reducing its ecological impact, many possibilities are being studied, such as biorefinery, i.e. the use of fuel created from waste or using solar energy.

Indeed, the Solar Impulse proved that we could fly thanks to the sun without emitting any greenhouse gas.

On the other hand, some engineers are focusing on the design of engines that should turn twice as fast and consume 20% less than today. Not to mention that some parts of the planes previously made of metal will be replaced by carbon fiber parts to obtain a lighter and more aerodynamic structure.

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Biomimetism

Engineers are using the forces of nature to design more energy-efficient airplanes, such as the use of V-flight, a technique unique to birds that can save up to 17% of energy, or the use of shark fin or raptor wing structures to improve stability or lift when designing aircraft.

But a real revolution is already underway: the hydrogen aircraft

Indeed, these planes would emit no emissions except water vapor. The founder and CEO of the company ZeroAvia said that by using the “hydrogen fuel cell” electric approach, there would be a reduction of more than 90% of the climate impact from the aviation sector.

Amanda Simpson, vice president of research and technology at Airbus America, backs up his words, saying, “We believe that hydrogen is the clean fuel to develop, because it’s not just about reducing CO2 emissions, it’s about eliminating them.”

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Some tests of hydrogen-powered electric aircraft have already been successfully carried out, but only on relatively short flights.

Nevertheless, the aeronautical group Safran, the pioneer in the design and production of aircraft engines, has demonstrated that aviation can never be 100% electric, especially for long-haul flights. In fact, electric batteries that would reduce aircraft pollution would not be powerful enough and too heavy for flights of more than 1,000 km, even though these flights account for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions in air transport.

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According to Safran, the only viable solution is to turn to biofuels. Biofuels are already used by some airlines, such as Air France, for some domestic commercial flights. So the use of biofuels could help reduce aircraft emissions considerably, compared with the current use of kerosene. However, favouring the production of this fuel would lead to an increase in the amount of agricultural land needed to produce it, and this could have a different impact on our environment, whether it be in terms of deforestation or other factors.

It is for these reasons that the long awaited greener sky will not be visible tomorrow. It is a real paradigm shift that must take place in the sector. And in order to develop aircraft that do not emit greenhouse gases, there are still many avenues to consider.

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