Pursuing Net-Zero in Aviation

Hayley Everett

The aviation industry is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Dassault Systèmes’ Dr. Lisa Belkhichane and Rajkaran Singh Kharbanda give an assessment of the solutions and challenges currently facing the sector

The aviation industry has been facing the challenge of reducing its carbon footprint for decades. Thanks to new, lighter materials and technological advances within engine and airframe design over the years, the sector has made significant progress in fuel efficiency with flights today generating half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) than the same flight would have emitted back in 1990.

Today, the global air transport industry is committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 by means of new technologies such as electric aircraft and more sustainable fuels like hydrogen. While progress is being made, however, these solutions still face several challenges regarding their overall impact on the environment.

Dr. Lisa Belkhichane, A&D Industry Value Expert, and Rajkaran Singh Kharbanda, Director of Industry and Business Consulting, at software corporation Dassault Systèmes explain how novel technologies are aiding the pursuit of decarbonisation in the sector and whether aviation could eventually achieve a truly end-to-end sustainable system.

An Aerospace Innovator

Established in 1981 through the spin-off company Dassault Aviation, Dassault Systèmes has a long and active history in the aerospace and defence industry. Initially, the firm’s small team of engineers began developing software for the design of wind tunnel models, and later branched out to address complex engineering needs in various areas of product design, simulation, manufacturing and process requirements through the company’s 3D Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software.

Since then, the company’s full digital mock-up (DMU) software, and later its 3DExperience platform, have been used by numerous aerospace customers to reduce the number of physical prototypes, realise substantial savings in product development cycle times, and enable global engineering through virtual working. Over the years, Dassault Systèmes has worked with a broad range of established aerospace and defence companies and start-ups to improve how aviation products are designed and manufactured with the latest technological tools spanning virtual reality (VR) and data analytics to virtual twins.

“The journey from CAD drawings of aeroplanes to virtual twins of cities, spacecraft and humans has been our journey of innovation over the last 40 years,” says Singh Kharbanda. “As systems become more complex to design, build and deliver, aerospace and defence OEMs and suppliers need to accelerate innovation, drive efficiencies and move to the factory of the future for greater agility on production rates. This requires a new way to conceptualise, design, manufacture, test, certify and sustain new air and space vehicles.”

Forming Effective Ecosystems

During the 41st Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation in October 2022, numerous governments confirmed their support for net-zero carbon emissions for aviation by 2050. To achieve this, the principal focus is now on the development of new technologies and fuel sources, Belkhichane explains.

“To address a truly end-to-end sustainable system, companies should approach the system-of-systems perspective in order to consider not only their impact at the product level, but also at the company and value network level,” she says. “By doing so, if we consider the case of future hydrogen aircraft for instance, companies will be able to take sustainability decisions around the raw material sourcing, the choice of suppliers for hydrogen transportation, or the best designs for hydrogen storage that take into consideration the requirements of the whole ecosystem.”

This system-thinking approach will be particularly important in the case of hydrogen infrastructures at airports, she adds, because the on-site storage definitions will further impact the remaining options and decisions for distribution and transportation, from which emissions must be captured.

Novel Aircraft Technologies

To meet these ambitious decarbonisation targets, innovative aircraft concepts and architectures are being developed, especially concerning propulsion systems. Electrifying the propulsion function will offer significant environmental improvements for smaller aircraft and short-range missions limited to a few hundred kilometres, according to Singh Kharbanda.

“This is especially suited to electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft in the so-called urban air mobility market,” he says. “Dassault Systèmes is supporting these new pioneers of aviation, including Vertical Aerospace in the UK, Joby Aviation in the US, and Ascendance Flight Technologies in France.”

When it comes to medium and long-range destinations, hydrogen propulsion is considered a promising technology, either in the form of a hydrogen fuel cell, or to power jet engines with hydrogen combustion to increase thrust, Belkhichane adds: “Hydrogen is a key part of the solution not only because of its unique property towards energy density, but also because it completely eliminates CO2 emissions in flight and can be produced carbon-free. This is, for instance, the important cornerstone chosen by Airbus in the design of future zero-emission airplanes expected to be commercialised in 2035.”

However, this creates new challenges around working out how to use hydrogen in various aviation technologies: “Some of them are the impact of very large storage systems on the aircraft architecture, and we will probably see totally disruptive airframes for civil aviation – like the blended-wing aircraft – that will be designed to store as much hydrogen as possible,” she adds. “Significant research and development are also required for the hydrogen production, distribution and infrastructures at airports.”

At the same time, aircraft certification standards are moving fast, just as aircraft technologies are evolving, too. The commercialisation of eVTOL aircraft in particular will be strongly dependent on the way technologies can reduce their acoustic signature and meet stringent certifications for noise. Novel eVTOL aircraft must also demonstrate to certification authorities that overall safety is met and airworthiness requirements are satisfied in order to be allowed to fly.

“Transforming technological breakthroughs into real solutions requires new ways of working that combine the expertise of stakeholders and enable efficient certification processes,” says Singh Kharbanda. “Regulators are working to establish certification processes for solutions involving disruptive hydrogen technologies. In France, Dassault Systèmes is supporting the aviation start-up Blue Spirit Aero, which relies on the power of hydrogen fuel cells, to be a catalyst in the entry into service in 2026 of such hydrogen aircraft using the 3DExperience platform. New qualification and certification processes for early integration of technologies and disruptive innovations are key enablers for a smooth entry in service of a new generation of sustainable aircraft, and therefore for a timely arrival of expected impacts on climate.”

Industrialising New Technologies

As with any new technologies, challenges are faced due to the novelty and unfamiliarity of hydrogen or electric systems. Therefore, adoption will be reliant on Technology Readiness Level (TRL) assessments to build a roadmap detailing the remaining issues and requirements to improve the maturity of novel aircraft technologies.

“This is the case for hydrogen applications where most of the effort still relies on the low-TRL activities, like research into the design and materials of hydrogen tanks or fuel cells,” explains Belkhichane. “An example of such identification of technical challenges for liquid hydrogen storage in aircraft has been recently made by the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) within FlyZero.”

In addition to the maturity assessment of novel aircraft technologies, the industry should also focus on how the system will be used in operation, she adds: “For the industrialisation of eVTOLs for instance, it is all about battery. Battery needs are very different to automotive, because eVTOLs require extremely fast charging capabilities and high-power cell discharging, thus energy density targets are very challenging. Thermal management of aircraft batteries is also a domain that the industry must pay attention to, because of high load conditions during take-off and landing. By making these anticipations, industries can build faster the right expertise on a specific domain and therefore be able to think about industrialisation in the early stages of product development.”

Digitalisation Is Crucial

According to Singh Kharbanda and Belkhichane, virtual technology is vital for aviation companies in their pursuit of decarbonisation. Digitalisation enables firms to develop collective intelligence to capture and manage environmental data that can impact sustainable innovation across their supply chains.

“With Dassault Systèmes, aviation companies can create live virtual replicas of hydrogen and battery electric systems, as well as virtual twins of new aircraft architectures,” explains Singh Kharbanda. “They can plan and test these at any point in the supply chain, all before real-life application. Dassault Systèmes has also developed a specific solution to evaluate the total footprint of greenhouse gas emissions from the design stage of a product to its end life. In doing so, companies can effectively deliver better new aircraft concepts and a more robust value network.”

“Many current production operations are based on the ‘take-make-waste’ model,” Belkhichane adds. “Circular economy solutions mean rethinking operations from the ground up, and that means that aviation companies need a full view of operations and a way to simulate a new model before making the physical changes.”

The pair believe that tomorrow’s game-changers will be those companies that embrace digitalisation to accelerate innovation and deliver increased efficiencies not only within their own processes, but in their supply chains, too. They say implementing digital engineering across the extended enterprise value network can be achieved by focusing on four principles: Ensuring a thorough understanding of the challenges associated with digital transformation, determining the best methods for preparing a large-scale transformation initiative, identifying the key enablers for orchestrating, governing, and managing the transformation, and ensuring the execution of the undertaking goes beyond their own organisation.

Looking Ahead

So, what particular trends and technologies are expected to play an integral role in the aviation industry in the years to come? According to Singh Kharbanda, “the eVTOL sector is now facing increasing competition, and the first company to truly breakthrough into the market will have a significant advantage by becoming the market reference which will set the standards for future players. As such,” he continues, “the efficiency and integration of engineering tools used in the development of eVTOL concept vehicles is of importance.”

Additionally, the development of low-emissions aircraft must be accelerated in order to avoid time running out for the industry to meet its net-zero goals, Belkhichane says. “This requires strong collaboration between OEMs and its suppliers as well as within the energy community – for example hydrogen producers – to accelerate development and overcome key technology barriers,” she offers. “In addition, energy companies, airports, OEMs and airlines should also work together to ensure infrastructure development. Building a global and cooperative ecosystem with all players in the value chain seems to be the key to achieving a truly competitive and sustainable aviation industry.”

Finally, airlines and operators are accelerating the replacement of older aircraft with more modern, fuel-efficient models that take advantage of new materials, composites, and technologies. To meet this demand, aircraft OEMs must adopt a flexible production rate, Singh Kharbanda says. “Analysts estimate that over 30% of errors and waste occur during production, which is related to the circular economy for which Dassault Systèmes has developed numerous solutions,” he adds. “This explains why companies are looking to Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing and the connected factory to create highly automated, interconnected manufacturing capabilities to manage changes in demand with more agility. This will help OEMs and their supply chains to drive efficiency, reduce waste and shorten product development cycles to meet market demand.”

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