acd – Alternative propulsion systems – all just hot air?

That was the provocative question posed at the meeting of the German Air Cargo Association (acd) on the eve of the ILA trade show in Berlin (04JUN24). The result of the experts’ contributions is summarized here: Innovative forms of propulsion in aviation and therefore also cargo transportation are very much on the advance. This is evidenced by numerous encouraging and technically demanding projects, some of which are already close to market introduction.

Noteworthy is that mainly SMEs attract attention by announcing or even introducing exciting innovations. One such example is the pioneering U.S. company, Eviation Alice, that offers the market an all-electric aircraft with a range of 800 km when fully loaded, and an uplift capacity of 1.1 tons. DHL has ordered 12 units of the Alice series, the first of which is due to be delivered this year. Another customer is U.K.-based regional aircraft lessor, MONTE, which has also placed an order for 30 of Eviation’s all-electric commuter aircraft.

L to R: André Steinau, MD GP Joule Hydrogen / Hauke Peer Luedders, Head of Fuel Cell Propulsion Airbus / Mathias Jakobi, Aera Manager Central Europe IATA / Engelbert Redel, Senior Consultant Marsh Advisory / Christopher Stoller, acd President  –  Image:  Janin Detjen – MaR Berlin

The e-solution
But are electrically powered aircraft the key to decarbonizing aviation? An exciting question that was debated by the experts at the acd meeting in many ways. The common consensus: they can fill a niche by covering shorter routes, i.e. as feeders. For long-haul air traffic, they are not economically viable due to the high battery weight, emphasized Hauke Peer Luedders, Head of Fuel Cell Propulsion Airbus.

SAF needs a level playing field
Which leads to the topic of SAF: Suitable, but clearly way too expensive compared to carbon-based Jet-A1 fuel. The dollar or euro ratio remains at 1 (Jet-A1) to 4 (SAF) per liter. Since there is an ample feedstock for this energy source, SAF is a very suitable fuel for accelerating decarbonization in the mid-term. It is also beneficial that the required ground infrastructure is already in place. However, without tax incentives or regulatory support by the legislator, SAF utilization will remain very limited, predicted Engelbert Redel, Senior Consultant Marsh Advisory. Above all, a level playing field must be established for SAF on a global scale, i.e. binding refueling quotas, as national solo efforts would do little to help and instead could distort competition. “Today, there are between 22,000 and 25,000 commercial aircraft registered worldwide, of which around 2,000 are full freighters. In 2050, there will probably be 50,000 aircraft, with a freighter share of about 3,000. But all new aircraft delivered today will still be flying in 20- or 30-years’ time, which is why the rapid scaling of SAF production is essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” emphasized Mathias Jakobi, Aera Manager Central Europe IATA. When asked by CargoForwarder Global, the official pointed out that IATA’s 2050 net zero target is an ‘aspirational goal’ and by no means carved in stone.

H2 needs fueling stations at 150 airports
That leaves hydrogen as the most important propulsion system for decarbonizing aviation, at least on long-haul routes – also due to the high energy efficiency of the gas. “For the market breakthrough of hydrogen-based air operation, we need 150 airports that offer H2 refueling stations,” Airbus manager, Lüdders pointed out, referring to the ground infrastructure aspect. As already announced, his company will first build a passenger aircraft powered by hydrogen. Only after this evolutionary step would an H2 freighter be conceivable, he emphasized.
André Steinau, MD GP Joule Hydrogen, pointed out that H2-powered trucks are particularly suitable for feeding shipments between suppliers and central airports, in this way lowering greenhouse gas emissions on roads. Hydrogen trucks, operating point to point, can easily replace diesel vehicles on routes with high cargo volumes. Founded in 2009 in North Frisia, his company’s goal is to supply industry, transportation and society with 100% renewable energy. To this end, GP Joule also operates various wind farms.

Future energy winners
The experts agreed that even small steps are valuable when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions. Examples here are: the Shark Skin developed by Lufthansa Technik to improve the air flow of jetliners; more direct flight routes from A to B without detours; or further improved flight characteristics of newly developed aircraft. As far as the production of green energy is concerned, the winners will be countries where solar panels achieve high levels of efficiency, as well as coastal regions in Spain, Ireland or Chile, where wind turbines are permanently in operation.
Consultant Engelbert Redel pointed out that there is no single path to climate neutrality in aviation, but that technological diversity is required. “The best and most efficient system will win in the end; we need this technological openness,” he said, indirectly addressing policy makers.

None of them showed up
And yet no policy makers were present. They were criticized very heavily at the acd meeting. Air traffic is over-regulated and bureaucratized was a core point of criticism. For populist or electoral reasons, targets were being set that were simply not achievable by the industry, despite enormous efforts, the experts argued.
The decarbonization of air mobility can only succeed when driven by targeted tax incentives, coupled with a better understanding of this industry by the policy makers, the experts argued. Members of the German national parliament (Bundestag) had been invited to the acd gathering, but none of them showed up.
Summarizing the meeting, acd President, Christopher Stoller said that these initiatives should now be put on top of the industry’s agenda:

  • drive forward pilot projects
  • invest in R & D
  • enter into strategic partnerships
  • and accelerate the long-term planning of ground infrastructure to decarbonize aviation.

There is nothing more to add to this.

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