The initial goal was a hybrid-electric aircraft demonstrator embarking on its first flight in 2021. The new reality is that the E-Fan X project has been scrapped. Rolls-Royce and Airbus pulled the plug on the joint development effort late last week.
[I]t has become clear to both parties that the actual requirement to carry out a test flight with all the elements integrated is not critical at this time. As an aircraft, E-Fan X was always designed to be a demonstrator only and never for actual use as a product in service.– Rolls-Royce Chief Technology Officer Paul Stein
In announcing the move Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini suggests that Airbus is not satisfied with the incremental change that the E-Fan X demonstrator would deliver. Instead the company wants to “take an even bolder approach to reduce CO2 emissions.” Realizing the decarbonization of flight “is no small feat,” says Vittadini, requiring Airbus “to re-focus all of our efforts on technology bricks that will take us there.” The E-Fan X project is not one of those technology bricks.
Building on the success of the E-Fan flight in the first half of the decade, the E-Fan X planned to incorporate a 2 megawatt motor into a four engine BAe 146/Avro RJ 100, replacing one of the gas-powered engines. An on-board power generation system and battery pack would deliver the “fuel” for the motor, allowing the aircraft to operate normally, though with lower emissions.
Should a new project come along that requires electric propulsion, Rolls-Royce believes it is ready to fly. In announcing the program termination Chief Technology Officer Paul Stein was optimistic of that future potential, “[O]ur power generation system can and will be integrated into any future aircraft that is developed requiring a hybrid-electric propulsion system, including a comprehensive flight-test programme to ensure that all industry safety requirements are met.” That no such development program is on the books matters little, perhaps, with the promise being made that it will work just fine if needed.
Although E-Fan X will not take to the skies, I strongly believe that its spirit will live on as we continue on our journey towards climate-neutral flight.– Airbus Chief Technology Officer Grazia Vittadini
Reduced motivation to deliver climate-neutral flight
Delivering on the promise of reduced emissions in aviation is something of a moon shot. There are no easy pathways and no obvious shortcuts. It will be an expensive proposition, one that requires massive support from all sectors of the aviation industry, as well as governments. That support existed in small pockets, often reluctantly granted, until the beginning of this year. The incremental cost to the new sustainable fuels was vaguely tolerated, for example, but only in small quantities while awaiting larger production volumes and the associated reduction in unit costs. But companies were willing to invest in that production capacity.
What a difference a global pandemic grounding nearly all passenger air travel can make.
Fuel prices cratered. This is a short-term effect, at least right now, but delivering long-term implications. The incremental spend to reduce emissions is now dramatically larger. And it comes against the backdrop of drastically reduced revenues for the airlines. Airlines that were once keen to show their commitment to the environment through such spending have new priorities now.
Balking at the CORSIA commitments
Not only are the airlines balking at the costs of lower-emission fuels, but discussions about reducing the commitments made via the CORSIA scheme are now occurring. Again, the cost of compliance is at the forefront.
Some airlines are using the crisis to ground their oldest and least efficient aircraft in favor of newer planes in the fleet as they come out of hibernation. Other airlines don’t have that broad a range of aircraft to ground or retire. Nor do they have the funds to buy new, more efficient models.
Shifting gears in a big way
One interesting hint in Vittadini’s comments came as she discussed the successes of the program. Among them, she described the development of “New pathways for disruptive CO2 reduction” including “…inquiry into new technology pathways. Hydrogen being one of them, which is equal parts a huge opportunity as it is a new challenge.”
Will the previous focus on electric propulsion pivot to hydrogen systems? Batteries are spectacularly heavy and, despite recent improvements, still hard to bring on board in a volume that supports more than a very short flight on a very small plane. Hydrogen promises a higher energy density, perhaps as much as 10x greater in the near term.
So maybe it will be hydrogen. Maybe it will be sustainable alternative fuels. Maybe it will be something we don’t yet know. But seeing two industry leaders bail out on such a highly visible program at this point is hard to see as a positive, regardless of the spin applied.
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