Within the next two years, all Rolls-Royce Trent engines will be compatible with 100 percent sustainable jet fuel. But for the forward-thinking aviation and car company, that’s just the beginning.
Forty percent of long-haul aircraft are powered by Rolls-Royce engines. And according to Rolls-Royce, the time to shift them toward sustainable aviation fuel is now.
“It’s a question of how much it would cost us not to [do it],” Warren East, Rolls-Royce’s CEO said in a recent interview. “The reality is that by 2050 we have to be net-zero across the planet and aviation needs to play its part.”
East said Rolls-Royce wants to continue providing engines for long haul aviation, “and so that’s what we must do.”
Sustainable aviation fuel
Globally, air travel is responsible for two percent of all CO2 emissions; that’s about 12 percent of CO2 emissions produced by all transportation sectors. Sustainable jet fuel can reduce emissions from airplanes by as much as 80 percent, according to the International Air Transport Association.
According to East, sustainable aviation fuel, which can come from cooking oil, non-palm waste oils, and solid waste from homes and businesses, offers “net CO2 lifecycle emissions of at least 75 percent less than conventional jet fuel”.
Performance for the Rolls-Royce engines won’t be impacted by a shift away from fossil fuels, East said. “It’s possible we will be able to get even better performance of the engines with sustainable aviation fuel.”
The biggest challenges for Rolls-Royce and the industry at large are access and cost. “Today, less than one percent of the world’s fuel is sustainable aviation fuel. By 2030, the industry is signed up to ten percent, so that means a 400-fold increase in the volume of aviation that will be used by then – and that sort of scale-up will undoubtedly have positive economic effects,” said East.
But even when it’s accessible, it’s about eight times the price of kerosine. But the industry is certain that will change. Along with Royal Dutch Shell, Rolls-Royce and Airbus are encouraging the industry to transition to net-zero emissions by increasing sustainable jet fuel production by ten-fold by 2025.
“[There are] things that we can do in the industry, providing the engines. Step function improvements in efficiency so our XWB engine for instance, that’s on the A350s today, is significantly more efficient than the older engines,” East said.
“Our next-generation engine which hopefully will be flying around in the mid-2030s, our ultra-fan engine, is going to be some 25 percent more efficient than the original Trent engine – so we can do something in terms of efficiency.
“And then you’ve got a massive cost reduction potential in the scaling of sustainable aviation fuels.”
Rolls-Royce is joined by the world’s leading airlines in efforts to make air travel more sustainable.
Australian airline Qantas recently partnered with BP oil and gas to bring sustainable fuels to its fleet. The airline is aiming to cap net C02 emissions at its 2019 levels. The announcement builds on its commitment to develop sustainable fuels. It has already pledged more than $38 million to the project.
“Airlines globally have a responsibility to cut emissions and combat climate change, particularly once travel demand starts to return,” Qantas Executive Andrew Parker said in a statement.
“The Qantas Group has set some ambitious targets to be net carbon neutral by 2050 and while offsetting emissions is a big part of that in the next few years, longer-term initiatives like building a sustainable aviation fuel sector in Australia, are key.”
Qantas has long been a leader in sustainable aviation. It currently operates one of the largest carbon offset programs in air travel. It matches its passengers flight offsets dollar for dollar; currently, 10 percent of passengers choose to offset.
In a partnership announced earlier this year, United Airlines, along with some of its biggest commercial cargo partners, including Nike and Siemens, launched an ‘Eco-Skies Alliance.’ The coalition will fund United’s efforts to make sustainable jet fuel out of trash.
United Airlines says it will meet its goal of reducing 100 percent of greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.
The low-carbon aviation fuel more than triples the amount of sustainable fuel the Chicago-based airline has used every year since 2016. Prior to Covid-19 travel restrictions, United burned through more than 4 billion gallons of jet fuel in 2019 alone.
United’s trash fuel is part of its plan to tackle a growing problem with greening air travel: carbon offsets. United has criticized the tactic, which essentially gives polluters a pass to continue producing emissions, by funding reduction efforts elsewhere, like by planting trees that sequester carbon. United is instead investing in carbon-capture technology. It also invested in sustainable fuel producer, Fulcrum BioEnergy.
Earlier this year, Fulcrum said it would produce 100 million liters of jet fuel out of waste in a UK-operated bio-refinery—its first outside of the U.S. It’s working to convert non-recyclable waste into low-carbon sustainable jet fuel.
“While we know that aircraft are never going to be completely decarbonized, we are not going to use offsets as the way to get to 100% green,” United Chief Executive Scott Kirby said on a call with reporters earlier this year.
“We’ll see how it develops, I think there’s a huge appetite for it,” he said of the shift toward low-carbon fuel.
“We know there is a growing demand from a wide range of our customers, including corporations, cargo shippers and individuals who share the same concern we do,” Kirby said, “that climate change is the most pressing issue of our generation.”
Direct Air Capture
United is also the first airline in the world to invest in Direct Air Capture technology. It says it’s looking beyond carbon offsets to tackle its fuel emissions.
“We believe carbon offsets simply don’t go far enough to address the emissions caused by our operations,” KIrby said.
Direct Air Capture is a sort of man-made photosynthesis that mimics how trees capture carbon dioxide. This form of carbon capture and sequestration is touted by leading climate scientists as a necessary component to mitigating climate change. It works by using giant fans to pull CO2 out of the air. The carbon dioxide molecules are then “trapped” in a non-toxic liquid that can be reused or buried. United is investing in 1PointFive, which is working on Direct Air Capture.
“I believe the world and the airline industry has to be bolder,” Kirby said.
With the United investment, 1PointFive will build the first of its kind Direct Air Capture plant in the U.S. that will be capable of removing more than one million tons of CO2 per year. According to the company, that’s the equivalent work of 40 million trees. But it does it in a land area 3,000 times smaller than needed for that many trees.
“These game-changing technologies will significantly reduce our emissions, and measurably reduce the speed of climate change,” Kirby said. “United Airlines is the only airline investing in these technologies. And we’re not just doing it to meet our own sustainability goal. We’re doing it to drive the positive change our entire industry requires so that every airline can eventually join us and do the same.”
“I realize it’s an ambitious vision for someone in an industry that depends on burning fossil fuels to operate,” Kirby said. “As the leader of one of the world’s largest airlines, I recognize our responsibility in contributing to climate change as well as our responsibility to solve it. It’s no longer enough to for us to connect the world without making sure it has a future.”
Rolls-Royce goes ‘jet-zero’
Rolls-Royce’s sustainability pledge comes after several big announcements, including winning a $2.6 billion contract with the U.S. Air Force that will see the company replace the engines for the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress bomber fleet.
It also recently announced that its first ‘super luxury’ electric car will arrive in 2023.
Last month, the company’s first all-electric airplane took flight. Dubbed ‘Spirit of Innovation,’ the fully electric vehicle completed a 15-minute flight the company said marked “the beginning of an intensive flight-testing phase in which we will be collecting valuable performance data on the aircraft’s electrical power and propulsion system.”
The project was partially funded by the Aerospace Technology Institute, in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK.
“The first flight of the ‘Spirit of Innovation’ is a great achievement,” East said. “We are focused on producing the technology breakthroughs society needs to decarbonise transport across air, land and sea, and capture the economic opportunity of the transition to net zero,” he added.
“This is not only about breaking a world record; the advanced battery and propulsion technology developed for this programme has exciting applications for the Urban Air Mobility market and can help make ‘jet zero’ a reality.”