A Clean Aviation Future For Europe Includes Net Zero Research And Development Projects
Under the auspices of the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking, the European Union (EU) is stepping up its efforts to reach a net-zero carbon future for aviation by 2050. With prominent aerospace groups such as Honeywell, Collins Aerospace, Textron, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, and GE Aviation playing key roles, much of the work will focus on developing regional airliners for decarbonizing short-haul flying.
Honeywell announced at the end of January that it is leading Project Newborn, a project with 17 other European partners aimed at developing a megawatt-cell hydrogen fuel cell propulsion system. Based on recent work under the Unifier19 project (see below), Textron eAviation subsidiary Pipistrel will integrate the technology into a demonstrator aircraft. A variety of short-haul hybrid-electric aircraft will be able to use the technology, according to Honeywell.
Initially, the Newborn technology is expected to be applied to a 19-seater commuter aircraft, according to Honeywell Aerospace principal scientist Ondrej Kotaba. Also, it could be used for larger general aviation aircraft and eVTOL vehicles that carry passengers and cargo.
Among the other companies and organizations involved in the project are PowerCell, the Fraunhofer Institute, Aciturri, Nottingham University, Siemens Industrial Software, Test-Fuchs, Reaction Engines, CIRA, Customcells, Friedrich-Alexander-Universitaet Erlangen-Nuernberg, and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. The U.S.-based company's Brno, Czech Republic-based Technology Solutions R&D center will provide equipment such as air management and control systems.
TheMa4HERA, which stands for Thermal Management for Hybrid Electric Regional Aircraft, is another Clean Aviation project led by Honeywell. A total of 24 European companies, including Collins subsidiary Nord Micro, have committed to developing new approaches for controlling the temperature of aircraft equipment other than the propulsion system.
In this project, Honeywell will develop advanced thermal management components and architectures for next-generation narrowbody aircraft, including those powered by hybrid electric motors. A one-megawatt turbogenerator was also tested by Honeywell in 2022.
DEVELOPING QUANTUM LEAPS IN ELECTRIC POWER DISTRIBUTION
Within the Clean Aviation HECATE project, Collins announced last month that it is coordinating the development of a high-voltage electric power distribution program. With Diehl Aerospace, Airbus Defence and Space, and Leonardo, the engines and electronics group Safran is acting as technical coordinator. Multiple European universities are also involved. Almost $44 million in funding has been provided by the EU and UK for the Hybrid-Electric Regional Aircraft Distribution Technologies project.
It will take a quantum leap in high-voltage power distribution to introduce hybrid-electric propulsion systems powerful enough to propel regional airliners. The electrical power rating on today's aircraft will rise from hundreds of kilowatts to megawatts.
The new-generation hybrid-electric powertrains will need to produce higher levels of electrical power in order to support the propulsion system as well as other aircraft systems, according to Todd Spierling, Collins' principal technical fellow for electrification. It's going to take a very different approach to power distribution and management for them to handle high-voltage power," he told Rich Report. It is imperative to be able to implement protections instantly as power levels increase, since things become more critical and there is more potential for damage.”
Collins' electric power systems organization's senior director, Marc Holme, explained that the group's expertise in this field comes from its contributions to major airliner programs like Boeing's 787, the most electrified commercial aircraft ever built. Pratt & Whitney's hybrid-electric flight demonstrator program is also part of Collins' involvement.
A high-power hybrid-electric powertrain with a power distribution system that is rated at 500kW-plus will be tested on the ground by HECATE partners by 2025. At Manchester University's Aerospace HV facility, simulated high-altitude tests will be conducted.
From its Ireland-based Applied Research and Technology Organization, Collins will coordinate its contributions with facilities in the UK and Germany. Power conversion and secondary distribution technologies are among the key elements it is developing.
A major component of Safran's power distribution system is the primary cabling and equipment. New power electronics, system control, and energy management technologies are being developed by Thales and Diehl Aerospace.
COULD AN ELECTRIC MINILINER TRANSFORM REGIONAL AIR LINKS?
In the Unifier19 project to evaluate zero-emission regional airliners, Pipistrel has played a key role in EU-backed research and development. Rich Report quoted a Pipistrel Vertical Solutions aerodynamics engineer as saying, "The project was primarily focused on providing cost-efficient and sustainable air mobility solutions over short and very short routes.".
TU Delft and Politecnnico di Milano worked on two applications for an electric 19-seat aircraft conceptually referred to as Miniliner, which Textron eAviation acquired in 2022. In work completed at the end of 2022, they examined the possibility of providing point-to-point flights between smaller cities and local airfields that are not yet served by scheduled air service.
In the absence of rail links, such an aircraft could provide a green alternative to cars on routes as short as 100 to 200 kilometers (up to 125 miles). With the aircraft Pipistrel has in mind, it believes it can land and take off on more than half of Europe's 3,000 small airfields, many of which have grass runways.
Pipistrel Vertical Solutions head of research Blaž Močan explained that the aircraft concept under the Unifier19 model has sufficient range capability so there won't need to be infrastructure at all airfields to recharge batteries or refill hydrogen tanks. Miniliners would operate multiple sectors from a network of hub bases.
Public transportation debates concerning environmentally sustainable options could be reshaped by the prospect of a viable electric commuter aircraft. Domestic flights are being banned in countries like France and Norway. Research suggests electric aircraft may be quieter than turboprop regional aircraft by between 10 and 20 decibels.
Following the completion of the conceptual phase of Unifier19, Pipistrel and multiple partners will begin developing the technology building blocks for the aircraft's propulsion system. Fuel cells will be used to power this hydrogen-electric powertrain.
Under the Paris Accord, the EU's Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking seeks to meet its zero carbon emissions goals by 2050 under the broad remit of its Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking. A new round of projects began in January 2023, and Pipistrel is a technical partner in five of them and a project coordinator in two, including four hydrogen-powered demonstrators that could ultimately result in a range of aircraft, including light trainers and delivery drones.
As part of the HERA project, Newborn will deliver a powertrain system suitable for the commercial aviation sector that can be integrated with a hybrid-electric regional airliner. Nevertheless, general aviation aircraft could also benefit from the technology.
A Pipistrel representative confirmed that the company has already discussed the aircraft with prospective operators. Ground demonstrations will take place in 2026, followed by flight tests in 2030, according to Clean Aviation's timeline.
A second call for project proposals will be launched by Clean Aviation this month. Over €1.8 billion has been invested in projects that aim to achieve net zero carbon emissions from aviation by 2050 through a combination of public and private funding.
HEART and AMBER are two other Clean Aviation projects in which Rolls-Royce Deutschland and GE Avio are developing multi-megawatt hybrid electric propulsion systems. As part of the CAVENDISH program and the HYDEA program, both of these companies are working on direct hydrogen combustion.
A Rich Report Aviation exclusive update.