Fuel Efficiency and Low Emissions: Responsible Aviation Missions

The aviation sector contributes less than two per cent of the total global carbon emissions into the atmosphere, yet the industry has taken proactive steps to improve fuel efficiency and to reduce its carbon emission

Issue: 3 / 2021By Isha JaiswalPhoto(s): By Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation, LanzaJet
As part of its ongoing decarbonisation strategy, Rolls-Royce is to use 100% Sustainable Aviation Fuel for the first time in engine ground tests on next-generation engine technology.

The aviation sector has taken a responsible step of reducing its carbon footprint. Though many may argue that the aviation sector contributes less than two per cent of the total global carbon emissions into the atmosphere, yet the industry has taken proactive steps to improve fuel efficiency and to reduce its carbon emission footprints through tangible and measurable efforts leading to perceivable outcomes.

World over, humans use organic fuels to generate electricity which is used for aircraft as well. This releases the carbon in these fuels in the form of carbon dioxide into the air, when burnt. Excessive carbon dioxide has led to global warming through greenhouse gas effects apart from causing air pollution. Hence, the aviation sector has decided to minimise their carbon emission footprints through various means in order to reach zero emission norms of carbon burning while flying aircraft.

Fuel efficiency and carbon emissions are the two faces of a single coin, as improved fuel efficiency of Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) reduces its carbon emission footprint. The aviation sector is trying to achieve this through improved airframes having better aerodynamics, minimising the deadweight of aircraft, improved chemistry to produce cleaner and alternate ATF, using smart and artificial intelligence-based ground handling and in-flight navigation software and equipment, apart from better air traffic management. All these measures reduce the carbon emission footprint of an aircraft through increased fuel efficiency both on the ground and during flight.

Fuel efficiency is ushered in by the use of lighter and better quality materials in the manufacture of airframes. All airlines try to offer lightweight amenities so that their fuel efficiency increases by reducing the deadweight when airborne. This, in turn, reduces the carbon emission footprint for every mile flown and for every litre of ATF consumed.

Fuel efficiency is ushered in by the use of lighter and better quality airframe materials being used

On the ground, fuel efficiency is achieved through better airport layout designs that minimise the taxiing time between the passenger gates, the Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) hangers or the runway. Most airlines use special vehicles to push the aircraft between the passenger gates, MRO sites or cargo terminals to save ATF. Now a days, aircrafts use only one engine to taxi from the apron to the runway. Aviation companies frequently wash aircraft and engines to reduce drag. All these increase fuel efficiency and reduce carbon emission footprints of the flying machines.

Furthermore, a considerable amount of artificial intelligence and machine learning-based software and algorithms are used to chart the flight path after considering the real time metrological conditions including headwinds, tail winds and the ambient air temperature. This optimises the fuel efficiency and minimises emissions.

GE’s patented 360 Foam Wash system has allowed Etihad to improve engine performance by reducing build-up of deposits in the engine, lowering engine exhaust temperatures, and improving engine compressor efficiency leading to reduced fuel consumption

In the case of headwinds, the automatic navigation systems can provide real time quick alterations to the pre-planned flight path after catering to the newly measured metrological conditions affecting the flight path. This reduces the aircraft’s fuel burn and optimises the engine thrust needed to follow the flight itinerary thus minimising the carbon emissions.

Accordingly, on encountering tailwinds, this algorithm will indicate the needed reduction of engine thrust to utilise the aerial push from the rear to maintain its flight itinerary and save on fuel burn. Thus, it can be seen how real time sensors and software can reduce fuel burn and carbon emissions.

Better landing navigation aids and software enable the pilots to execute climb or descent operations without unnecessarily altering the engine power. This saves the aircraft from gratuitous fuel consumption, noise, vibration and stress on the aircraft parts and also reduces the carbon emissions. Thus, it can be seen that the use of software algorithms, using artificial intelligence onboard and at the ground control stations helps reduce carbon footprints by fuel burn optimisation.

Today, the ATCs are better equipped for handling massive air traffic efficiently. They sequence the landing schedules well before the aircraft reaches its designated check/report points. This way, the aircraft can alter its flight and eliminate the need for loitering till it gets runway space. This brings fuel efficiency, shrinks carbon emissions and enables the pilot to carry out a soft landing.

The aviation sector has taken the responsible step of reducing its carbon footprint

The above aspects are always possible, but are constrained by traffic volumes at an airport, the runway availability and the passenger load that patronises the air hub. New Delhi, as an example, is a busy hub where, aircraft often loiter in the air while waiting for a landing slot. It, thus, is essential that, the workload of New Delhi ATC be optimised by the operationalisation of other nearby airports where international flights can land. Consequently, it is important to activate Chandigarh, Ludhiana and Amritsar airports where international flights specifically catering to the passengers from Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Northern Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir, can land. Once the passengers hailing from these areas are able to utilise these airports in Punjab, many such flights can be diverted away from Delhi.

This will reduce the carbon footprint over Delhi, free up the landing slots and the runway space apart from terminal real estate for other aviation companies and aircraft. It will reduce travel costs for other passengers, narrow down aircraft-related pollution and the surface traffic jams as passengers move to and from New Delhi airport.

The concept of fuel efficiency and the associated carbon emissions will be incomplete without discussing the evolving, processing chemistry of the manufacture of ATF. ATF companies are endeavouring to produce better grade fuels having minimum carbon atoms to minimise the carbon emissions when ATF is burnt. Considerable research has gone into manufacturing of biofuels. The use of Jatropha and other organic substrate has been adopted by the aviation sector as a blend in order to truncate the lifecycle of the carbon emissions.

Aviation companies and aviation fuel manufacturers have resorted to a three-pronged approach for carbon reduction. The first involves improving fuel efficiency, cleanliness of the burnt residue and improvement of the distillation process so that leaner ATF with lower carbon emissions is available to the aviation industry. The next is the utilisation of sustainable aviation fuels and finally, the use of carbon sequestering through offsets in order to minimise the overall impact of carbon footprints of the aviation industry, when considered through a complete life-cycle concept of carbon fuel manufacture and consumption, till its disposal.

LanzaJet takes a major step in further enabling the decarbonization of the aviation sector with the fabrication and construction of its first Alcohol-to-Jet biorefinery

Sustainable aviation fuel involves the use of farm waste or domestic trash for generation of bio-chemicals which can be used as aviation fuels. These fuels have to generate the same specific impulse, if not more, than what conventional ATF does to make it popular amidst the aviation companies. United Airlines has successfully adopted the use of sustainable aviation fuels by involving the local farmers around their commercial hubs.

The third aspect of carbon reduction is by sequestering carbon emissions through the use of offsets. In this process, the net carbon emissions from the aviation sector are offset by encouraging afforestation in proportion to the carbon emissions from aircraft. This can be very easily done by the aviation companies throughout India. They can select a place where they would like to encourage the farmers to go in for afforestation in order to offset their carbon footprint emissions. Border areas of India, which are scantly populated, would be ideal places to carry out such an offset through tree plantation. This is due to the fact that abundant open fields are available and the farmers can plant oxygen-generating trees on their farm boundaries. As it is, the farmer who tends to his crops and waters them, he can easily look after the tree saplings that have been planted to get carbon credits and make the sequestering carbon credit project a success for the Indian aviation sector.

It can be seen that fuel efficiency and its resultant carbon emission reduction have been undertaken on a very pragmatic scale by the aircraft manufacturers, airline operators and the ground handling staff including the air traffic controllers. A consolidated and concordant effort by all these stakeholders involves improving the aerodynamics, making aircraft lighter, consuming better fuels, using technology to improve flight path on a real time basis and technology-assisted landing and take-off. Optimal ground movement within the airport and sequencing of the aircraft to land and take off from the airport by technology available with the ATC will also help the aviation industry to enhance fuel efficiency and diminish carbon emissions for the betterment of humanity.