Airbus Industries: Imagining Sustainable Aviation

Published 2 MAY 2014 on KITCO News

1  This week, Airbus Industries reported the first successful flight of their new “E-Fan” electric two-seater aircraft. Commercial aviation is known for extremely long development cycles; due to extensive and complicated testing and approval processes, innovation takes a long time to be implemented in passenger air-crafts. Therefore, this maiden voyage of a small aircraft, capable of staying airborne for just 60 minutes on one battery charge, may look like the Wright brother’s first attempt to conquer the skies. At the same time, however, it is a manifestation of a commitment by the aircraft industry to depart to new horizons: zero emission aviation. Boeing, Airbus’ American rival, is of course working on the same issues, having presented experimental hydrogen-electric prototypes as far back as 2007. Since then, however, their focus has been weight reduction paired with more fuel efficient conventional engines.

Extreme operating conditions and high safety standards require high performing materials. Traditionally, the aircraft industry has been a large consumer of platinum, titanium and other metals in aircraft turbine blades and on-board electronics. As demonstrated by these two market leaders, modern aircraft design is about tackling the issues of emissions and operating cost on different levels:

  • Weight reduction
  • Design and aerodynamics
  • Fuel efficiency
  • Zero emission: battery electric or fuel cell electric instead of internal combustion engines and
  • Ecosystem: production methods and operating environment meet similar standards.

Eventually, all “clean” energy used needs to be produced in sustainable and non-polluting ways for the equation to make sense. In these efforts, the industry is taking the same path BMW chose with their i3/i8 battery electric (or hybrid, respectively) vehicles.

“The E-Fan is just a precursor to a bigger, regional airliner”, said Jean Botti, Airbus’ CTO last week in Bordeaux after the E-Fan’s maiden voyage. The company’s “E-Thrust” program is geared at producing a hybrid airliner with 80 seats. However, “the challenges of moving from a two-seater to an 80-seater are profound”, he explains. The E-Thrust’s motors, for example, would have to produce a total four megawatts of power – 670kW from each of its six electric engines. “This will involve extremely high currents, so a new generation of electrical cabling, connectors and electronics will be needed.”  airbus1

A fuel cell powering the APUs (auxiliary power units) of future Airbus models is also in development. APUs are used to provide power while a plane is stationary with its main engines shut off. The fuel cell APU will produce no noise and require very little maintenance. It would eliminate the need for ground generators and water tankers since its distilled water could be fed directly into the plane’s on-board water tanks. Inactive gases could be used in the plane’s fire protection system.

The weight of lithium ion batteries vs. hydrogen or conventional fuel are a main concern in this endeavor. Next generation fuel cells with optimized platinum loading, and battery materials with higher power density will play a crucial role in the implementation of these ideas. The technology metal industry will benefit from this transformation in a big way; not only through the technology change in the actual air-crafts but – very similar to BMW’s i3/i8 factory – by finding application in a comprehensively sustainable environment including production, use and product life cycle.


(Pictures: Airbus Industries)