Can batteries and hydrogen power our future aircraft?

Airport of the future concept with flying drones

We take a look at what technologies can be used to power our future aircraft and what has been done so far to achieve the net zero target by 2050.

We launched the Innovate UK UK Transport Vision 2050 (GOV.UK) last month (August 2021). A document setting out the changes, challenges and opportunities that will confront the transport sector over the next 30 years.

Aerospace, along with other transport domains, is facing great change going forwards if we are to reduce current emissions and achieve a net zero target by 2050.

Even though current aircraft are significantly more efficient than the previous generation in terms of their CO2 emissions, they are still fossil-fuel powered and as such contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

How much GHG is being emitted by aviation?

Did you know that aviation emissions accounted for 7% of UK GHG emissions in 2018 and have been relatively flat since 2008? (Source: 6th UK carbon budget (Climate Change Committee) (PDF, 795KB))

Surprising, right? This is because the increase in international travel has been offset by:

  • improvements in aircraft efficiencies
  • falling military and domestic aviation emissions.

But to achieve net zero by 2050, we will need new disruptive technologies and other sustainable energy vectors to power our aircraft.

Are batteries the answer?

Yes and no. Blame physics. The problem (Wired) is, current batteries simply do not offer the power-to-weight ratio or cost needed to be feasible especially for long haul flight.

However, we do believe battery electric will be the dominant energy vector for small drones and air taxis in the advanced air mobility sector as the weight penalty of the batteries is less severe.

Smaller regional aircraft may also be fully battery electric, but hybrid electric and hydrogen powered are expected to offer the prevailing propulsion route.

For domestic and transatlantic flights, sustainable aviation fuels (such as biofuels, biowaste to jet and synthetic jet fuels) will almost certainly replace fossil fuels. With new medium and large hybrid electric and hydrogen powered aircraft being introduced from 2030s onwards.

What has been done by Innovate UK so far?

Innovate UK, both as the UK’s innovation agency and as a partner in the joint government-industry funded ATI programme, has already supported several key research projects in these areas:

Future flight challenge

The future flight challenge, part of the UKRI Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, is investing in projects to develop greener ways to fly, such as:

  • all-electric aircraft and deliveries by drone
  • advancing electric and autonomous flight technologies.

Funded projects include:

  • AGS Airports Limited – Urban and rural UAS-enabled healthcare
  • Blue Bear Systems Research – project HEART looking at hydrogen fuel cell powertrains and on-board automation for sub-regional aviation
  • AI LIMITED – Distributed BVLOS (beyond visual line of site) aviation system to manage complex missions in congested spaces.

Electroflight

Electroflight is working with Rolls-Royce on the Accelerating the Electrification of Flight project. It will develop technology that will enable the aviation industry to adopt electrical propulsion solutions ensuring that the industry can continue to grow and prosper whilst minimising its environmental impact.

Their first flight, a world-record attempt (BBC News) with a target speed of 300+mph (480+ kmh), took place on 15 September 2021 (Rolls-Royce).

Vertical Aerospace

In 2020, Vertical Aerospace began their ‘Initial Demonstration Platforms’ project which aimed to develop a high-performance urban air taxi. It’s electrically powered and capable of vertical take-off and landing. Full scale flight test is planned to begin later this year.

ZeroAvia

Also in 2020, ZeroAvia started their HyFlyer II project. It aims to develop a fuel cell powertrain for 19-seater aircraft, building on the learning from the Hyflyer project, which conducted the world’s first hydrogen-electric passenger flight in September 2020 (ZeroAvia).

Video credit: ZeroAvia
On-screen captions and an autogenerated transcript is available on YouTube.

The future is green

I know there are many other companies developing new technologies, systems and platforms. And the ones that I’m speaking with are confident that with the appropriate support and investment the UK can lead the way in reducing aviation GHG emissions and achieve our net zero targets.

In my discussions with such companies as part of the vision 2050 research, recurrent themes have emerged showing that we need:

  • to work together (especially cross-sector collaborations)
  • radical changes in thinking and planning
  • to introduce these new disruptive technologies safely
  • to sustainably produce, supply and distribute the energy required to power different aircraft
  • appropriate investments in research and development, and deployment
  • new infrastructures to support these new systems and aircraft.

We need your input

We’ll build on our original work but we’re asking for your help.

Can you share knowledge, point towards sources of information and help improve the UK’s understanding of the challenge, and help us all understand the opportunities and risks for the future?

You can find the complete vision document work here (GOV.UK). You can share thoughts on the work, including suggesting ways to improve for the next iteration by completing our survey (SurveyMonkey).

Further information

Connect with Alfred on LinkedIn

Read Alfred’s previous blog: The ART of flying (UK Government Archive)

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Top image: Credit: UKRI

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