An aircraft wing is seen with the sun rising. Zero-emission hydrogen is the future of  air travel

Aerospace through a greener lens

On 24 September 2020, a small plane took off from an airfield at ZeroAvia’s R&D facility in Cranfield, Bedfordshire.

Nothing unusual there.

But it has been hailed as a landmark moment for low carbon flight. It was the world’s first hydrogen fuel cell powered flight of a commercial-grade aircraft. In a statement, ZeroAvia said that the flight marks a major step towards the use of zero-emission hydrogen as the primary energy source for commercial aviation.

Why is this important for the sector?

The scientific advances in research and development highlight the talent that exists across the industry and this is where we can further showcase the sector’s potential green credentials.

And as one of the UK’s top manufacturing subsectors, aerospace represents significant international business for the country.

However, the pandemic has, over the last year, impacted massively on a sector that has for the best part of 20 years, grown year-on-year. The ripple effect has been felt across the industry’s supply chain and, undoubtedly, the sector will improve over the next few years as business travel and overseas holidays return.

Rather than dwell on the well reported challenges with build schedules and order cancellations, I want to pick up on the opportunities with which the sector can fly, to drive the green sustainable agenda.

Net zero ambitions

The sustainability agenda is an important consideration to reflect on as we start to come out of the pandemic.

The Jet Zero Council is looking at the greening of aerospace and we know that the interest is quite high within the UK Government.

Last year, the Government published a Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, which led Adam Morton, the Sustainable Aviation Chair to say:

It is particularly encouraging that Jet Zero is identified as one of the priority areas. Through this investment and the work of the newly formed Jet Zero Council, UK aviation has the potential to lead the world in developing and deploying cutting edge technologies such as Sustainable Aviation Fuel or SAF.

“SAF technology is available now, can be used in existing engines and aircraft, and its production overlaps strongly with the regions that have been earmarked for hydrogen and CCUS projects. However, follow-up action is needed urgently to stimulate the required private sector investment and remove obstacles to deployment. Over the longer term, these synthetic fuels will be joined by electric and hydrogen propulsion as part of a package to deliver net-zero flight.”

Interestingly, as we look to a sustainable aviation fuel future, the hydrogen plane is the bridge between the evolution from current aeroplane fuel, into hydrogen and other fuel sources.

The aspiration is to get aviation net carbon neutral by 2050 and it is an area where we are likely to see increased investment.

Investing in sustainability

So, coming out of the pandemic with direct government funding, or support for sectors focused on a greener economy, there is an opportunity to stimulate the future rather than plugging a downside.

Sustainability projects will help the industry build back better and greener and have the potential to create up to 4,570 jobs across the UK.

During the pandemic, aerospace companies have been able to benefit from the government’s extensive business support measures including furlough, CBILs, and Bounce Back loans. The aerospace sector and its aviation customers are being supported with almost £11 billion made available through loan guarantees, support for exporters, the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility and grants for research and development.

For those companies facing potential scheduling volatility, now is the time to look at government investment.

But is there breathing space for businesses to make those investments before the ramp up comes, potentially in late 2023 or early 2024?

The challenge now is businesses might have cash pressures so to think about making investments when reducing workforce is conceptually difficult. Those with stronger balance sheets may be able to make those investments, which will yield efficiency improvements down the line.

Soaring ahead

Innovative aerospace technology is rapidly developing, meaning that there is the potential for small-scale zero-emissions flights to be a reality as early as the end of 2023 – but these technologies won’t yet be scalable to commercial airliners.

Minister for Business, Paul Scully, said: “These trailblazing projects are broadening the horizons of future air travel, towards a greener future where we may be able to hail taxis from the sky rather than on our streets.”

The first hydrogen take-off is therefore important for the UK aerospace industry to position itself globally as a market leader, and a sign of greater things to come.

Exciting times.

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