Airbus Summit 2022 – Sustainable Future

I had the privilege of attending the Airbus Summit 2022 in Toulouse in Munich on Nov 30 and Dec 01, 2022. This was a follow up to last year’s summit which was primarily held online due to the pandemic situation. The summit was special in more ways than one. First, it allowed the global aviation community to come together – possibly for the first time since March 2020. Second, it was a status check of what Airbus announced last year and third – it showed how serious Airbus is when talking about clean aviation as the future of aviation. 

The target – net zero by 2050, a goal of IATA and also meeting COP27 targets. The sessions were dedicated towards reaching a goal of zero emissions and gave a glimpse of what is happening in this area in terms of research, investments and challenges. The audience comprising select invitees, journalists and influencers (like I have been categorised) had multiple questions in all sessions to an extent that the sessions had to be closed without taking all questions for lack of time. 

The summit involved discussions on topics like What next in Space?Decarbonising, ZEROe, Hybrid, a clean vertical flight, towards net-zero, UAM as a lifesaver and towards a stronger Europe. The Summit was streamed live on Youtube and you can access it on these links – Day 1 and Day 2.

A look at the summary of where aviation is headed. Airbus is calling this the “Decade of change” which will have profound and far reaching effects for mankind.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

  • All jets which are currently being delivered are capable with flying with 50% SAF
  • Intention to have jets certified for 100% SAF by 2030
  • Air France has a target to incorporate more than 10% SAF worldwide by 2030. It says that in recognising changing customer behaviours, and being transparent in its communications, both corporate customers and individual passengers are willing to contribute to SAF purchases and/or pay a higher ticket price for each flight.

Airbus and Neste, a world-leading producer of renewable fuels, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to jointly advance the production and uptake of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

Neste is the world’s largest SAF producer and expects 1.5 million tonnes of production capacity coming online in April 2023, including a refinery in Singapore. 

I was specifically interested in asking about the volatility of the SAF pricing as compared to ATF since high ATF has led to many airlines going bust in the past. I was also keen to know what do the airports need to invest in to have SAF storage. 

SAF is 4 to 8 times more expensive than ATF and is a major inhibitor for implementation, apart from the lack of availability. The prices, too, are volatile and will continue to remain so. The airports need not do any changes since the SAF blends with the existing JET A-1 and does not require separate tanks or infrastructure for storage or any processing.

Hydrogen

Airbus is investing heavily on research of Hydrogen powered planes. The commitment is from the highest level in the company and that involves modifying an A380 to be operated with Hydrogen. The modification is slated to start in 2025 with the first flight planned for 2026.

  • Hydrogen remains one of the most promising fuel solutions to power a zero-emission aircraft. Developing the right volume of hydrogen, at the right price, from the right sources and delivering it in the right locations are all key considerations.
  • Airbus has developed partnerships worldwide, but also much closer to home: with HyPort at Toulouse-Blagnac, making it one of the first airports in Europe to produce, distribute and operate hydrogen from renewable sources.
  • A new initiative between Airbus and ArianeGroup will support the liquid hydrogen fuelling system necessary for Airbus’ ZEROe demonstrator aircraft.
  • Airbus has also announced it is developing a hydrogen-powered fuel-cell engine to be installed on the ZEROe demonstrator, A380 MSN1. The engine offers further decarbonisation benefits. 
  • The modification will involve having Hydrogen storage near the rear pressure bulkhead of the fuselage.

The challenge though is to get the Hydrogen to airports in liquid state and storing it safely. This will require investments from airports as well and the quantum of investments is not known at this point of time.

The current focus on the aircraft perspective too is towards a 100 passenger plane with a range of 1000 nautical miles for the Hydrogen powered plane.

ZEROe engine under development
Expected to fly in 2026

Hybrid

Hybrid is the intermediate way of using technology to reduce dependence on fossil fuels directly. Taking a leaf out of the automotive industry and vehicle hybridisation looking at hybrid-electric propulsion. A 100% electric aircraft is not realistic though.

  • In terms of Airbus’ roadmap for energy-related technologies, developments are not sequential. There are a number of exploratory hybridisation projects running concurrently based on a common technology ‘block’ of 300/500 KW.
  • Several of these projects are being run in conjunction with Airbus’ aerospace partners, as this is very much a collective endeavour. Some are also supported by the European Union, as part of its Clean Aviation programme. 
  • Hybrid-electric flight can benefit from the lessons learned within the automotive industry, and at Airbus we are also building on our own considerable experience in battery research and electric propulsion.
      

Airbus and Renault signed a new partnership agreement announced during the event. The partnership is particularly focused on energy management and battery research.

Other things that are happening?

The Summit also had a session on What next in Space with a pertinent question on Why go to the moon right now when there is so much happening all around us. The answer dwelled around how research and exploration of space in general and the moon in particular would help solve some of the challenges on earth – especially around natural resources. 

There were other interesting points made where Airbus said it is months away from alternative sources of Titanium to not have any dependence on Russia. This was the first public statement about the topic. The session on “Building a stronger Europe” saw the speakers talk about a strong determination to win the war and teach Russia a lesson where it does not think of attacking again.

The focus was also on Urban Air Mobility, especially on the life-saving missions – helping medical services reach people in the critical ‘golden hour’ in ways that are not currently possible. LifeSaver is a new solution from Airbus, developed in collaboration with International SOS. At its heart is a new eVTOL UAM aircraft which will complement existing in-service aircraft as part of a wider life-saving ecosystem. eVTOLS can revolutionise air transport as we know it. The Government of Estonia is the first to explore LifeSavers’s potential as part of a wider innovation programme focused on achieving better patient outcomes. While LifeSaver has found its first customer in Estonia, the solution is non-domain and non-geography dependent. It can be a bridging point for some countries in creating a new tier of healthcare. And while UAM is by definition an ‘urban’ air technology, it is not only a solution for cities, and is also well suited to large areas with a low population density.

I again had a question to ask about UAM, especially around its certification on when it would reach the larger metropolis like Paris, London or Delhi. UAM certification will see regulators like FAA or EASA being involved and a successful trial in Estonia would pave the way for getting it to congested cities like Paris, London or Delhi.

Tail Note

The multi pronged strategy involves

  1. Immediate steps (Using fuel efficient aircraft)
  2. Focus on Technology (Improved Air Traffic Management)
  3. Sustainable Aviation Fuel blend
  4. Hybrid
  5. Hydrogen powered planes

All of this comes at a cost and without any returns until all of this materialises, it is heartening to see Airbus invest in these technologies for a better tomorrow.

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