Targeting net zero flying: Implications for airports

Alejandro Block by Alejandro Block | Jun 28, 2021

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, civil aviation was experiencing yearly demand growth rates of nearly 5%. To avoid emissions from growing at the same rate, the aviation sector has been relying on initiatives to reduce its environmental footprint including better aircraft technology, smarter and more efficient operations, and alternative fuels. Even with all this effort, as consumer demand increases – emissions continue to grow and accumulate; and so more and more people wonder: what can be done to “bend the curve”? How can aviation emissions be neutralized or, more ambitiously, decreased? Can carbon emissions be eliminated in aviation?

The growing noise about hydrogen

Those of us who spoke about hydrogen as an alternative for fuel in aviation just two years ago were perceived to be unrealistic… or crazy and were often told: “This will never happen”. Some people classified it as science fiction, or at best as a nice idea but which would likely not be possible in our lifetimes.

Today the mention of hydrogen is a common occurrence in every aviation and environment conversation. Though many challenges still exist, this energy carrier is a (tailpipe) zero carbon emission fuel, which may bend the emissions curve, and along with other solutions drive aviation carbon emissions down to zero. Hydrogen can be manufactured from renewable electricity, and in its liquid form, it contains three times more energy per kilogram than conventional fuels.

Airports are key players in technology

One of the most vivid memories I have from when I landed at ACI was meeting with Juliana Scavuzzi, Senior Director for Sustainability and Environmental Affairs at ACI, who told me, “Airports can be the enablers or the barriers to all of these technologies”.

It was in that spirit that we set an ambitious target to understand these approaches further. What are the implications of zero carbon aircrafts for airports? What would a hydrogen-ready airport need and look like in 2035, 2050 or beyond? Surprisingly, we realized that most of the existing information about these developments were written almost exclusively from an aircraft perspective. There was scarce material about the future impact of these new technologies on actual airports.

We started working on this topic half-way through 2020. The months passed and time was flying, but aircrafts were not. The COVID-19 outbreak was constraining us with unforeseen and abrupt challenges: aircrafts were grounded, colleagues were being furloughed, and expenses were scrutinized to the last cent. In order to continue our research, we knocked on multiple doors: we requested funding from various government      institutions and different universities around the world, and we looked for outside-the-box partnerships with diverse industry organizations.

Around this time, we crossed paths with the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI), an organization responsible for the aerospace technology strategy of the United Kingdom. To date, it has awarded over 1.4 bn GBP in funding to aviation-related projects in the UK. One of the projects in which the ATI is working on is FlyZero. This one-year project will explore the technical and commercial feasibility for two viable conceptual zero-carbon emission aircraft to enter service by the end of the decade. Both ACI and ATI were working on the same direction and were driven by the questions surrounding airports adapting to hydrogen aircraft. It was thanks to Cristina Garcia-Duffy, Head of Technology, that we were able to take this project off the ground. In the ATI we found the necessary forward thinking and support we were looking for.

The formidable partnership between ATI and ACI made it possible to achieve our objective: to understand some infrastructure, operations and safety implications of hydrogen aircraft at airports. ACI was able to provide subject matter expertise , and ATI provided the aircraft and aviation system strategy perspective.

Integrating hydrogen as a fuel for aircraft in airports will require the reshaping of our current ground operations. New refueling procedures, equipment, and ways to transport the fuel within and into the airport will be required. Luckily, we are not starting from scratch.

The hydrogen industry has existed for over 100 years. Today, there are more than 5,000 km of hydrogen pipelines around the world and the industry handles nearly 100 million tonnes of hydrogen per year. We are trying to learn from all the non-aeronautical applications to understand the challenges and solutions of implementing this new substance into our airports.

Hydrogen coming to an airport near you

Every airport is different and will be affected by these aircraft or fuels in a specific manner. While aircraft manufacturers will take ten to twenty years to deliver a zero emission aircraft, or SAF providers to scale-up SAF, airports will also require the same amount of time to prepare, so the time to start planning and acting is now.

A greener, net zero future lies ahead

An escalating number of commitments to net zero from States, cities, airlines, and airports, combined with an ever-growing number of initiatives which look into SAF, hydrogen, or electric aircraft, has made our research key in increasing the understanding of the different strategies for decarbonizing aviation.

Through its assembly resolution A40-18, The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), has also started assessing the feasibility of a long-term aspirational goal for international civil aviation emissions. It is our hope that this partnership and the outcomes from it will inform airports and other stakeholders about some of the airport related implications of zero emission aircraft. Experience has taught us that when it comes to climate change, the aviation community must work together in a collaborative manner.

This report aims to contribute towards airports becoming the enablers and not the barriers to the future of flying: One that is safer, more efficient, and cleaner than the one we have today.

Alejandro Block

Alejandro Block

Senior technologist, sustainability, strategy, and integration, ATI
Alejandro Block works with the environment and sustainability team at ACI world and the Sustainability, Strategy and Integration team at the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI). Through this shared role, he currently manages the activities around alternative energy sources for aircraft at airports. He has contributed to several working groups in the Committee of Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) of ICAO and is a research visiting fellow in the propulsion department of Cranfield University. He holds a PhD in aerospace propulsion and has authored several international publications about aviation and the environment in the shape of peer-reviewed scientific journals, conferences, and industrial collaborative reports.
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