The World Environment Day provides an ideal occasion for aerospace engineering professionals to reflect on the future we want. The global aviation sector is aware of its impact on the generation of both CO2 and non-CO2 emissions, and the role of aerospace engineering is key in developing technologies to mitigate it.
Which areas of transformation within aerospace engineering have the largest influence on sustainable development?
- Green energy sources
One of the main problems of aviation is fuel and its impact on the atmosphere. There are some initiatives working towards cleaner energy sources for airplanes such as The Solar Impulse, an aircraft that circumnavigated the globe without using a single drop of fuel, just energy collected from solar panels.
However, fully electric planes for passengers are not feasible yet. An intermediate solution is hydrogen, another research field for aircraft energy sources where companies like Airbus are working on: its zero emissions hybrid hydrogen plane couples fuel cell electricity with fuel’s chemical energy brings the advantage of being able to continuously charge batteries, as is done in hybrid-electric vehicles.
This approach focuses in CO2 emissions. But in order to address the impact of non-CO2 emissions, there are research projects such as Hydrogenating CM-UC3M, which aims to demonstrate that Artificial Intelligence can be used effectively to find climate-optimal trajectories for H2-powered aircraft.
- Data technology
According to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), “space technologies and data are fundamental to achieving the SDGs: they provide real-time, homogenous information from any location, including remote areas, upon which strategic policy-making decisions can be based, and they are essential to monitoring progress in achieving the SDGs”.
It is towards this goal that the ALARM project is oriented. Specifically, its work package focused on the identification of hotspots is advancing to provide algorithms for environmental/climate hotspots based on state-of-the-art algorithmic climate change functions (a-CCFs), define MET data requirements and assess climate impacts that will allow the identification of areas where aviation has a major climate impact.
- Trajectory optimization
Optimizing trajectories with an economic goal has been a common work field in airspace engineering for decades. But making these trajectories optimal from an environmental point of view (considering not only CO2, but non-CO2 emissions all together) has not been so usual.
In this regard, projects like FlyATM4E pursue a reduction of climate impact by identifying aircraft trajectories with a lower CO2 and non-CO2 impact on the atmosphere.
Other research pillars towards sustainability are clean aerospace industrial supply chain and industry 4.0 – the utilisation of automation and data in manufacturing.
But what about reusing the materials used in the aircraft industry? Tesla’s SpaceX is a pioneer in reusable spaceflight. The Falcon Heavy was launched in February 2018 and is currently the most powerful operational rocket on the planet. It can launch 63 tonnes into low Earth orbit and 16 tonnes to Mars.
Unlike aeronautics, astronautics has to deal with completely different challenges like generating efficient propulsion systems, materials that can withstand the high heat of re-entry, safety, etc. However, technologies such as reusable spacecraft are alleviating the resource tax involved in creating and using spacecraft.