Aviation is getting cleaner every day, there is no way back. Many improvements have been done in the last decades to improve the efficiency of aircrafts such as the increased-bypass ratio turbofans or the extensive use of lighter materials such as carbon fiber in the entire fuselage. Examples of this cutting-edge technology are the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350. However, if we compare the development of the aviation industry with automotive in terms of reaching zero-emission vehicles, automotive continues ahead.
Is full-electric the solution?
There are many initiatives to build a more electric aircraft like Pipistrel's or Safran's electric engines, but electrical power has its limits in the energy storage capacity in form of battery. When space and weight are at premium, you want to cram as much energy into a small space as possible. Elon Musk is anticipating a new generation of batteries of 400Wh per kilogram in 3-4 years. Aviation industry experts say that we would need at least 800Wh/kg to think about 600nm commercial flights but think about those values compared to the specific energy of Kerosene Jet A (almost 12,000 Wh/kg).
Airbus hydrogen cell-fuel future
Airbus is aware of this limitation and the European consortium is betting for hydrogen as a zero-emission technology, targeting 2035 for bringing into the market a zero-emission commercial aircraft. Compressed Hydrogen used in Cell Fuel Engines is 40,000 Wh/kg, comparing the previous scale, 100 times more energy per kilogram than the 400 Wh/Kg than Elon Musk is anticipating.
Cell fuel is not a new solution in aviation and many solutions have been proved since the
Martin B-57B's, in 1957, experiment. The problem with the liquid hydrogen has been the volume compared to kerosene (hydrogen needs 4 times the space of kerosene per same energy), requiring more space in the fuselage for fuel, which means less room for payload and more skin drag. Nevertheless, new technologies, including the development of new-designed lifting body, or blended-wing body (BWB), could mitigate this pitfall.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Boeing is talking about the use of 100% sustainable fuels like coconut oils and other sources of agricultural and forest waste.
Sustainable fuels may are not so sustainable
Sustainable fuels are a good initiative, currently in use at 50% mix in recent testing, but the use of these fuels is also controversial when the industry is trying to maximize the use of natural oils. A well-known case in the Supply Chain world is the Palm Oil Case. Palm Oil is used extensively in consumers' goods from snacks and food to cosmetics, drugs, detergents, personal care, animal feed, and other industrial and biofuel uses. The reason behind this extensive use is the incredibly efficient crop, producing more oil per land area than any
other equivalent vegetable oil crop. The growth of Palm plantation in countries as Indonesia is controversial because while the production is good for the country's economy, it is devastating their forests. There are many initiatives to control the use of palm oil and make natural oil a sustainable solution. Does Boeing want to be involved in this kind of industrial problem?
Boeing's current issues are understandable, especially after the 737MAX crisis, and maybe this is the reason behind a clear strategic leadership in the industry. Tesla is envisioning a faster transition to more electrical cars for sustainable solutions and its CEO is talking about going to Mars. Airbus is dreaming of zero-emission aircraft which byproduct is water. Meanwhile, Boeing's vision is not so clear. Leadership is not only selling more aircraft but also betting on an ambitious vision to attract talent to the company and build a community to be proud of it. It looks like Airbus is "winning the battle" and consolidating the leadership for next years.