GKN Aerospace is “pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible” with sustainable airframe and engine design, the company’s Chief Technology Officer Russ Dunn has said.

While “fantastic opportunities” exist to transform the existing fleet of around 20,000 aircraft in the skies today, he said work was also progressing on completely new technologies.

Radical change

“There are 20,000 aircraft flying around today, and we’ve got fantastic opportunities to do better on those aircraft,” he said.

“However, that will only incrementally improve the environmental emissions from aerospace. So you have to look at much more radical change.

“New electric aircraft at the smaller end all the way up to hydrogen-electric propulsion and ultimately hydrogen combustion. All of those ingredients are going to play a role.”

Fan technology

The range of projects includes a partnership between GKN Aerospace and KTH (the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology) to develop fan technology for smaller regional aircraft.

The project will study aerodynamic design, performance, noise and manufacturing technology for a ducted fan powered by electricity, either from batteries, hydrogen fuel cells or even more conventional hybrid propulsion solutions.

Hydrogen combustion

Low-cost carrier easyJet will also support the development of GKN Aerospace’s Hydrogen Combustion (H2JET) and Hydrogen Fuel Cell (H2GEAR) technology, including exploring the options for flight demonstration.

H2GEAR is a GKN Aerospace led UK collaboration programme aiming to develop a liquid hydrogen propulsion system for sub-regional aircraft that could be scaled up to larger aircraft. Liquid hydrogen is being converted to electricity within a fuel cell system. This electricity efficiently powers the aircraft, eliminating carbon emissions and creating a new generation of clean air travel.

‘Potential to fundamentally change the game’

Commenting on GKN’s work, Dunn continued: “We are working on a lot of more efficient engine and airframe technologies, we are also looking at new concepts for hydrogen combustion solutions.

“The thing that I’m the most excited by is hydrogen-electric propulsion. The potential to fundamentally change the game, to really introduce net zero emissions to a much larger market and actually have a really significant impact in our overall goal, which is to enable many more people to enjoy the benefits of flight but without the environmental impact.”

Investment needed

However Dunn added that significant investment was still required to reach this goal.

He said: “There is an awful lot of investment needed, there is an awful lot of work needed. You are going to have to focus on a few targeted opportunities to really make a difference.

“That is going to need investment at the airframe and engine level, where it is combustion, it is going to need investment in brand new technology, it is going to need investment in infrastructure, and all sorts of other ingredients.

“So the level of investment needed now is probably greater than it has ever been, but the opportunity is also greater than it has ever been. Fundamentally, this is about doubling the size of the aviation industry, and at the same time delivering that with net zero emissions. That is a huge challenge.

“By 2035, realistically we are going to start to see some really radical changes in the energy types that are being used.”

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