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Rolls-Royce gears up to power African aviation’s emissions reduction target

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Paul Stein, the Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer. PHOTO | COURTESY

Summary

  • The Business Daily spoke to Paul Stein, Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer, on how Africa's aviation can achieve its environmental targets.

Airlines are acquiring new aircraft with the latest technology to operate more efficiently and economically as well as more environmentally. The majority of players in Africa’s growing aviation industry have signed agreements to prioritise the protection of the environment.

Rolls-Royce, which powers all Airbus A350s and A330neos aircraft, and whose customers in Africa include Ethiopian Airlines, SAA, Air Mauritius, EgyptAir, Air Senegal, Uganda, Rwandair, and Air Tanzania, will be a key partner on this journey. The Business Daily spoke to Paul Stein, Rolls-Royce’s chief technology officer, on how Africa's aviation can achieve its environmental targets.

DESPITE BEING RESPONSIBLE FOR ONLY TWO PERCENT OF GLOBAL EMISSIONS, AVIATION IS THE TARGET OF INCREASINGLY PROHIBITIVE ENVIRONMENTAL LEVIES. DOES THIS SKEW THE PICTURE AWAY FROM WHERE THE WORLD SHOULD BE LOOKING?

All industries need to revolutionise to support our growing, increasingly urban population. We have entered an era where sustainability is key to not only economic survival but for us as a species. Global passenger traffic is increasing by five percent year-over-year. Africa alone will need an additional 1000 aircraft within the next 20 years.

As a leading industrial technology company, our activities have a profound effect on society and the environment and we are at the forefront of developing innovations that mitigate industrial impact. The Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe has set a target to reduce CO2 per passenger-km by 75 percent by 2050, and as such we have set ourselves the target of 30 percent reduction in specific fuel consumption, compared to the first Trent engines.

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, IMPROVEMENTS TO THE POWER PLANT AND IN PARTICULAR, THE GAS TURBINE, HAVE BEEN THE DRIVING FORCE TOWARDS EFFICIENCY GAINS AND GREENER AVIATION. HOW MUCH MORE CAN THE ENVELOPE BE STRETCHED TO MAKE THE GAS TURBINE LEANER AND GREENER?

Rolls-Royce has been pioneering flight for over 100 years. We created the first turboprop, first jet engine, powered the first passenger airliner, and powered the first and only commercial supersonic jet (Concord). We’ve crafted seven variations of our world-leading Trent family since its launch over two decades ago; each has pushed the boundaries of what is possible. The gas turbine remains essential to our future — the Trent XWB which powers the Airbus A350 is the most efficient in-service aero-engine ever created and will be flying for decades. We are now taking this proven technology through another evolutionary step.

The Ultrafan™ will be 25 percent more fuel-efficient than the first Trent engine, with a new geared architecture and bypass ratio treble that of the Trent 700. The fan blades will be manufactured from the very latest carbon/titanium composites.

ELECTRIC PROPULSION HAS BEEN PROPOSED AS THE FUTURE OF AVIATION. BUT TO WHAT EXTENT CAN IT BE A SUBSTITUTE TO THE GAS TURBINE?

Electrification is impacting many transportation systems and is set to have a similar impact on aviation as when gas turbines replaced piston engine propulsion. For medium to long-haul flights with larger aircraft, the gas turbine will remain the main source of thrust as only chemical fuels can deliver the power required for such heavier aircraft.

However, electrification will enable simplification of gas turbine internal design, unlock new methods of managing aircraft drag, and open new benefits at platform level.

ROLLS ROYCE HAS RECENTLY ACQUIRED SIEMENS’ ELECTRIC PROPULSION BUSINESS. WHAT ARE THE CURRENT LIMITATIONS OF ELECTRIC PROPULSION AND TO WHAT EXTENT CAN THEY BE ADDRESSED IN THE FORESEEABLE FUTURE?

The recent acquisition of Siemen’s electric and hybrid-electric aerospace propulsion business, known as eAircraft, is a fantastic opportunity and has strengthened our capabilities.

We are engaged in several electrification programmes. For instance, our E-Fan-X programme will demonstrate hybrid-electric flight by replacing an engine from a 100-seater jet with a 2MW Hybrid-Electric Propulsion Unit, powered by a gas-turbine-driven 2.5MW generator and a battery system. This will be the world’s most powerful flying generator. Another example is the ACCEL programme which we hope will break records and be the fastest-ever, all-electric aircraft reaching a speed of 300+Mph. This will require the most powerful battery ever built for flight, powerful enough to beat speed and performance records, light enough to fly, and stable enough not to overheat.

BESIDES UNMANNED AIR VEHICLES, WHAT LARGE-SCALE APPLICATIONS IN COMMERCIAL AVIATION CAN ELECTRIC PROPULSION FEASIBLY SUPPORT IN THE NEAR TERM?

Soon, we shall see electrical, vertical, take-off and landing aircraft (EVTOLs) demonstrating the same versatility of helicopters. Many of the early concepts rely solely on battery power and require extensive charging infrastructure. But, as battery technology improves these aircraft will fly longer ranges and at higher speeds. The projected market size for early versions is roughly £1bn per year.

Rolls-Royce’s hybrid EVTOL is based on the hybridisation of our M250 engine, capable of carrying four to five people and travelling at 250mph over a range of over 500 miles.

THE INDUSTRY HAS ALSO BEEN PUSHING FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF SUSTAINABLE AVIATION FUELS. FROM AN ENGINE MANUFACTURER’S PERSPECTIVE, WHAT HURDLES NEED TO BE OVERCOME BEFORE THESE FUELS CAN BE CONSIDERED A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE TO FOSSIL FUELS?

Rolls-Royce is committed to doing what it can to support and accelerate the availability of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), including the development and certification processes. Our engines can operate on any alternative fuel that has the same characteristics as kerosene. Several Rolls-Royce airline customers already use blended fuels (SAFs with fossil). EgyptAir’s recent delivery flight of their 5th Rolls-Royce Trent 1000TEN powered Boeing-787 was fuelled by Sustainable Aviation Fuel.

IATA HAS ALSO SET ITSELF RATHER AMBITIOUS EMISSIONS REDUCTION GOALS. WHAT MIX OF TECHNOLOGIES WILL IT TAKE TO MEET THOSE COMMITMENTS?

There are three fundamental pillars that lead the decarbonisation of the aviation sector: Continuous development of aircraft and engine technology to improve efficiency; Development of low carbon alternative fuels; Development of novel aircraft and propulsion technology, including the electrification of flight. We are continuously driving fuel efficiencies in today’s products, achieving an average of one percent increase in fuel efficiency each year. This is thanks to advanced analytics from data collected from engine health monitoring, which shows us how well an engine is functioning. We can then advise our customers how they can optimise fuel efficiency and whether an engine requires maintenance.

IN AFRICA, ROLLS ROYCE TENDS TO BE ASSOCIATED MORE WITH ITS AVIATION. HOW BIG AND DIVERSE IS YOUR PRODUCT PORTFOLIO ON THE CONTINENT?

Rolls-Royce is dedicated to delivering vital power, in whatever form. We have three divisions: civil aerospace, defence and power systems.

Our civil aerospace division has supported African aviation for almost 100 years. Today we serve 20 operators, powering over 60 widebody aircraft, with another 50+ aircraft on order. Roll-Royce powered ‘flying hours’ in Africa has increased by over 50 percent over the last five years.

Wakabi is a Kampala-based air transport and technology journalist. [email protected]