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Aerospace Sustainability by Aayushi Mallik 

Updated: 6 days ago

As a student studying aerospace engineering, I have always been enthralled by the effect the aerospace industry has had on the environment and humanity. From building rockets to explore different planets to protecting our countries, the aerospace industry is a crucial and growing part of our economy. However, there is a problem that arises that has led to many questions on whether or not the aerospace industry is producing the most optimal products when it comes to sustainability. The immense technological advancements in aerospace have undeniably pushed the boundaries of human exploration and innovation, yet they've also raised concerns about their environmental footprint. 

As rockets launch and aircraft traverse the skies, the environmental impact of carbon emissions, noise pollution, and resource consumption cannot be overlooked. This juxtaposition of progress and environmental consequences underscores the urgent need for sustainable practices within the aerospace industry. As we strive for continued advancement, I feel like it's important to address these challenges head-on, seeking innovative solutions that not only propel us further into the cosmos but also ensure the preservation of our planet for future generations.


Aayushi Mallik

Originating from the Wright brothers' pioneering flights in the early 20th century, aerospace endeavours have evolved into a diverse field encompassing the design, manufacturing, and operation of aircraft, spacecraft, and associated systems. Historically, the industry has been deeply intertwined with global military efforts, driving rapid technological advancements during periods of conflict such as World War II and the Cold War. Over time, aerospace giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin emerged, propelling economic growth and fostering international cooperation through endeavours like the International Space Station (ISS). 

The aerospace industry faces a multitude of environmental challenges, each requiring urgent attention. Carbon emissions, primarily from aircraft operations and manufacturing processes, contribute to global warming and air quality degradation. Noise pollution generated by aircraft engines and operations affects communities near airports and wildlife habitats, leading to health issues and decreased quality of life. Additionally, resource consumption, including energy, water, and material resources, raises concerns about sustainability and resource depletion.


Innovations in aerospace technology hold promise for addressing environmental challenges and promoting sustainability. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), derived from renewable sources, offer a cleaner alternative to traditional jet fuels, reducing carbon emissions. Advanced materials, such as lightweight composites and titanium alloys, improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. Electric propulsion systems and digitalization enhance operational efficiency while minimizing environmental impact. Moreover, sustainable manufacturing practices, including the adoption of eco-friendly materials and energy-efficient processes, contribute to waste reduction and promote circular economy principles.


Aayushi Mallik

SAF refers to fuels produced from renewable resources such as biomass, waste, or renewable electricity, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to conventional fossil fuels.


While SAF has demonstrated its ability to reduce lifecycle emissions compared to conventional jet fuel, its limitations become apparent when considering its energy-intensive production process. “SAF's Achilles' heel”, revealing that its production demands 1.8-2.3 times more energy compared to producing and liquefying hydrogen alone. This substantial energy requirement translates into significant financial burdens and strains on renewable energy resources. Moreover, large-scale CO2 capture, an essential step in SAF production, further escalates energy demands. Despite these challenges, SAF remains a viable option for reducing carbon emissions, especially in the short term. Now, a lot of resources suggest that the aerospace industry should move towards using hydrogen as fuel instead which may offer a more sustainable and future-proof solution in the long run.


Net zero aviation refers to the goal of achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted by aircraft and the amount removed from the atmosphere, resulting in no net contribution to global warming.


There are also many aerospace companies such as Virgin Atlantic that have announced that they have a goal to reach net zero aviation. Virgin Atlantic is strategically aligning itself with sustainability goals through its investment in the Airbus A350-1000, a pivotal component of its fleet. The A350-1000 incorporates advanced materials like carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, which significantly contribute to improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. Virgin Atlantic's commitment to sustainability is evident in its vision to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and its intermediate goal of a 15% reduction in CO2 emissions per revenue tonne km compared to a 2019 baseline. 

By investing in new-generation aircraft equipped with innovative technologies, Virgin Atlantic aims to enhance its overall carbon footprint while providing passengers with a more sustainable travel experience. The A350-1000's innovative features, including advanced materials, latest engine technology, and efficient design inspired by biomimicry, align perfectly with Virgin Atlantic's sustainability and innovation goals. Moreover, the A350-1000's quieter engines and aerodynamic advantages not only contribute to reduced emissions but also address concerns regarding noise pollution, positioning Virgin Atlantic as a leader in sustainable aviation.

Aayushi Mallik

Regulatory frameworks and policy initiatives play a crucial role in driving sustainability within the aerospace industry. International organizations like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) set global standards and regulations for aviation safety and environmental protection. Agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement address aviation emissions and climate change mitigation. Governments implement emissions reduction targets, provide funding and subsidies for sustainable aviation technologies, and introduce market-based measures like emissions trading and carbon pricing to incentivize industry compliance with sustainability goals.

Stakeholder engagement and collaboration are essential for achieving sustainability goals within the aerospace sector. Industry partnerships and initiatives promote sustainability through knowledge sharing, best practices dissemination, and innovation acceleration. Aerospace companies develop corporate sustainability strategies and collaborate with research institutions and academia to drive technological advancements. Community engagement and public awareness efforts raise awareness about environmental issues and foster support for sustainable aviation initiatives. Collaboration between governments, industry stakeholders, and civil society organizations ensures inclusive policy development and effective implementation of sustainability measures.

The UK government, for example, in collaboration with industry coalition Sustainable Aviation, has taken significant policy initiatives to accelerate the transition to net zero aviation. Sustainable Aviation has launched a manifesto urging the incoming government to prioritize sustainable aviation by becoming a leader in Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production and supply, strengthening aerospace technology innovation, and accelerating airspace modernization. The government's recent announcement of £200 million in joint public/industry investment for energy-efficient aircraft and the selection of three companies for the government-funded Hydrogen Challenge Sandbox demonstrates a commitment to fostering innovation in sustainable aviation. 

Additionally, SAF startup Avioxx's successful pre-series A funding round, led by UK travel company Trailfinders, highlights private sector investment in developing SAF production plants in the UK. These policy initiatives and stakeholder engagements underscore the UK's determination to lead the world in green aviation technology and achieve net zero aviation by 2050.

On top of this, the UK, efforts to achieve net-zero aviation emissions also include initiatives focused on carbon removal and carbon capture. Sustainable Aviation, an industry coalition, advocates for the acceleration of carbon removal and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to offset residual carbon emissions from aviation. The group emphasizes the importance of integrating carbon removals into the UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and ensuring that aviation contributes its fair share to carbon mitigation efforts. Furthermore, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has launched the Hydrogen Challenge Sandbox, which aims to increase industry and regulatory readiness for hydrogen fuel and other new technologies. 

Selected companies, such as Cranfield Aerospace Solutions and ZeroAvia, are developing hydrogen-electric engines and conducting ground testing and flight trials to assess the feasibility of hydrogen as a sustainable aviation fuel. Additionally, Cranfield Aerospace Solutions is working on a hydrogen fuel cell drivetrain for aircraft, with the CAA collaborating to identify safety challenges associated with the project. These initiatives highlight the UK's commitment to exploring innovative solutions, including hydrogen and carbon removal technologies, to decarbonize the aviation sector and achieve net-zero emissions goals.

The aerospace industry stands at a pivotal moment in its history, where the pursuit of technological advancement must align with environmental responsibility. By embracing sustainable practices, leveraging innovative technologies, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders, the aerospace sector can navigate towards a more sustainable future. Addressing environmental challenges requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, guided by regulatory frameworks, and driven by a collective commitment to environmental stewardship. As we strive for continued progress and exploration in aerospace,  let us reach for the sky while keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground.






 

Work Cited

 Bailey, Joanna, "IATA Sets Ambitious Goal For Zero Emissions By 2050", Simple Flying, 2021. Accessed 26 April 2024.

 Boon, Tom,"Airbus A350-1000: Fleet Guide & Details for Every Airline", Simple Flying, 2022. Accessed 26 April 2024.

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Earth.org. "Sustainable Aviation Fuel Companies - Earth.org." Earth.org, Earth.org, earth.org/sustainable-aviation-fuel-companies/. Accessed 27 April 2024. 

Federal Aviation Administration. "Sustainability | Federal Aviation Administration." FAA, Federal Aviation Administration, [publication date not available], www.faa.gov/sustainability. Accessed 26 April 2024.

History.com Editors. "10 Things You May Not Know About the Wright Brothers." A&E Television Networks, 16 December 2021, www.history.com/news/10-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-wright-brothers. Accessed 26 April 2024.

Investopedia. "Kyoto Protocol." Investopedia, Investopedia, 14 May 2020, http://www.investopedia.com/terms/k/kyoto.asp. Accessed 26 April 2024.

Jackson, Chris, "Comment: Why Hydrogen Will Fuel a More Sustainable Aviation Future", The Engineer, 202. Accessed 26 April 2024.

Li, Austin. "Hong Kong needs to address its noise pollution | South China Morning Post." SCMP, South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd., 6 September 2021, www.scmp.com/yp/discover/your-voice/letters-editors/article/3191129/your-voice-hong-kong-needs-address-its-noise. Accessed 26 April 2024.

Precedence Research. "Sustainable Aviation Fuel Market Size, Share & Growth | Industry Analysis Report, 2019-2027." Precedence Research, Precedence Research, November 2021, www.precedenceresearch.com/sustainable-aviation-fuel-market.Accessed 26 April 2024.

Surgenor, Christopher, "UK aviation industry coalition calls for accelerated policy action by next government on net zero", GreenAir Online, 2024. Accessed 26 April 2024.

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