In a year’s time, revenues for the entire global commercial aviation industry will almost touch 1 trillion dollars!
As we are merely weeks away from 2024, commercial aviation is on the verge of an inflection point—a fundamental change in how engines will be powered.
As alarm over the worsening climate change grows, this is a watershed moment for that industry. The 196 countries reaffirmed their solemn vim and vigor for the “Adoption of the Paris Agreement Enhancement Protocol” in July this year. It’s a rejuvenated commitment that carbon emissions will be reduced.
Under pressure, the industry has no choice but to seek more environmentally friendly means of powering flights.
So what is the substitute?
In this context, as technologies are advancing at breakneck speed, three innovations are the most promising alternatives to traditional jet fuels: electric, hydrogen, and hybrid propulsion systems.
However, which will emerge on top in the future?
That’s exactly what we will talk about in this blog post.
Commercial Aviation: Where Does it Stand Today?
Since the dawn of industrialization, fossil fuels have been our primary source for driving machinery and industries.
The commercial aviation industry is no exception. The industry has long used a type of jet fuel to power aircraft engines. But this reliability and efficiency had a caveat.
Massive dumping of carbon into the atmosphere! Unfortunately, between 2013 and 2022 alone, global atmospheric CO has gone up an average of 7.6%.
Today, aviation is enjoying more than 10 billion dollars in net profits; it’s back to pre-pandemic times. However, according to Environmental and Energy Study Institute research, the aviation sector accounts for around 2.5% of total global emissions by weight in tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Even so, this number may sound like a very small sum, but once applied to global commercial aviation on that scale, it’s anything but insignificant.
Actually, global carbon emissions have reached an all-time high of 37.55 GtCO2
In the present day, with global consensus for a greener future and the adoption of tough regulations from governing bodies, this burgeoning sector is under real pressure to come up with environmentally sound alternatives.
Looking for greener options, therefore, has become a key and urgent task.
As one famous author once said, pollution is an incurable disease that can only be prevented.
With fossil fuels remaining the primary mode of energy throughout a century, electric vehicles and aircraft stepped into the arena.
Electric airplanes are an environmentally friendly alternative to planes that rely on the burning of fossil fuels. They are electrically driven by electricity, which is stored in batteries as the current source for their motors. This means that no fossil fuel is burned on the planet at all.
This breakthrough ensured much brighter prospects for a greener tomorrow for the aviation sector. Imperative technological shift, that is. With mounting pressure to lessen carbon emissions, hundreds of companies started investing in electric aircraft.
One such example is Eviation, a pioneer in the electric aviation industry. They are pivoting on the motto “The Future is Electric: Carbon Free.” Eviation is currently working towards unveiling “Alice,” which will be an all-electric nine-seater plane through which they plan to commence commercial flights by 2024.
Likewise, a prominent giant, Rolls-Royce, has equally hit the news with its all-electric “Spirit of Innovation” aircraft. But like anything in transformative technologies, battery technology represents among these headwinds.
Electric aircraft headwinds have innovative batteries that will be able to provide greater power without the plane having to bear the extra weight.
With such remarkable progress in the field, the global electric aircraft market is estimated to reach $50.86 billion by 2032
Another alternative to conventional aircraft is zero-emission hydrogen aircraft. These are aimed at short-haul regional flights, and the best performance can be with distances in the range of 500 miles. It uses hydrogen fuel cells as an electricity generator.
And surprisingly, the global hydrogen aircraft market will likely reach a mammoth figure of 241.3 billion dollars by 2032!
The Hydro aircraft concept has gained traction, with several aviation giants putting billions of dollars into research and development lately.
But as of 2023, there are no hydrogen aircraft in operation, but that’s likely to change in the years to come.
Leading this technology is Airbus, a global leader in pioneering aerospace advancements in recent times. Airbus is currently in the process of introducing unique designs for Hydro aircraft. They are planning to fly their first hydroelectric aircraft by 2035.
These designs range from a turbofan design with a capacity of up to 200 passengers.
Universal Hydrogen is another company that is investing millions of dollars in such ventures. This tech company is coming up to retrofit existing regional airplanes with hydrogen fuel cells. They should come into operation within the next 3–5 years.
At the same time, the primary problem associated with hydrogen aircraft is the storage and transportation of hydrogen. Since it has a low energy density, it demands substantial space for storage, a difficult logistical exercise.
Now you have the best of both worlds: hybrid aircraft. Finding new ways to fight carbon emissions with hybrid aircraft is another state-of-the-art technology conception in the field of commercial aviation.
The global market for hybrid aircraft will reach 13.2 billion dollars by 2030.
So how is it different from the rest?
It utilizes both electric motors and conventional internal combustion engines. This combination ensures a massive reduction in carbon emissions along with bringing down operation costs, something its peers (electric and hydrogen) struggle with.
Tech giants like Airbus, Seimens, and Rolls Royce have joined forces to develop the E-Fan X, a high-power hybrid-electric aircraft demonstrator, to accomplish a common technological advancement goal. Ultimately, making hybrid aircraft mainstream in the decades to come
Still, in its early years, the hybrid technology will offer efficient air travel—in fact, with more investment, cleaner and quieter too.
Starting from technological puzzles to massive infrastructure overhauls, the road to a greener future offers formidable challenges. Yet, the industry compass is firmly set for this green horizon.
As such cutting-edge technologies continue to progress and go into commercial service, aviation’s landscape will be rewritten.
With a growing focus on this industry, venture capital funding for sustainable aviation startups reached an all-time high of 3.7 billion dollars in the first half of 2023 alone—diverse investments in electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-powered aircraft.
It’s not far when your flying experience will change. Imagine a flight on a plane, bearing in mind that your flight is a carbon-free emission. Because they won’t have conventional engines but rather electric or hybrid ones, imagine planes that are quieter during takeoff and landing.
With hydrogen, electric, and hybrid aircraft already on the way, a whole new era in aviation is about to be launched where savings do not come at the cost of sustainability.
This prospective commercial airline will be more sustainable and cost-effective. With the induction of such innovative technologies, airlines could be witnessing a reduction in fuel costs, fewer noise restrictions, and probably lower expenses with maintenance as well.
In the end, it’s as simple as this: the future is either green or not at all.