Arc Universities

A webinar earlier this year looked at how the universities of the Oxford-Cambridge Arc are blending the capabilities of the institutions, together with industry partners and Government, to reimagine the future of aviation.

Here are some of the questions posed at the event, with Iain Gray,  providing his response. Iain is Director of Aerospace at Cranfield University, and Chair of OCAVIA, the Oxford – Cambridge Arc’s Virtual Institute in Aviation; a grouping of five of the Universities of the Arc, working together to complement existing efforts in the creation of a zero-emission aviation sector.

Would it be valuable to integrate with other experts throughout the country and world rather than just OCAVIA?

Absolutely. Other universities and catapults outside of the area have much to over these strategic challenges. The UK Aerospace Research Consortium connects the. leading aerospace universities from across the UK and provides a great link for OCAVIA To collaborate with the universities in other key aerospace clusters across the UK . The Catapult Network similarly has much to offer  across its Centres and for instance the Energy Generation Systems Catapult would bring expertise the end to end energy system work. Greenwich University would bring excellence in aviation fire safety developments. Universities of York and UCL could bring their excellence in modelling to developments. OCAVIA seeks to demonstrate, not just the building of a network of research and development connections but the execution of research as a collaboration of institutions.

Is fully green H2 for aviation the right, sustainable goal when aviation accounts for only 2.5% man made CO2 and that is pre-Covid-19, when less than 5% of H2 produced is currently from renewables and when there’re other industries that need to decarbonise faster by 2050? 

First off, regardless of the sector’s “share” of CO2 contributions, we know that CO2 production, at scale is not good for the environment. So, we must address the sector’s contribution. It is the right thing to do.  It is true that aviation currently produces only 2-3% of the world’s CO2 emissions, so may not be seen as the burning platform to be addressed, as other transport modes and other sectors address their CO2 emissions, if aviation doesn’t that percentage will become bigger. And lastly, by its nature transformation in aviation has to go through a lot of checks, a lot of scrutiny and so transformation will take some time. So, we need to start now.

Or is it better to go for a mixed approach (as the UK is doing) inc. syn/biofuels in the short/mid-term plus stepped battery electric development in the long term for aviation? 

Such an approach is being taken. Sustainable Aviation fuels are seen as part of the solution, hybrid electric as another part of the solution and H2 fuelled aircraft as the potential game changing, long term solution. We need, for now, to consider the mix.

What noise benefits will be delivered as part of these projects given that, for many, aircraft noise is a more immediate problem because of the disturbed sleep, interrupted concentration and the resultant hypertension, stress and low education attainment, etc. 

Noise has to be factored in. Over the 5 decades, aircraft have reduced their noise output by 75% and this progress continues: the newest aircraft on the market have on average, a noise footprint that is 30-50% that of the aircraft they are replacing thanks to new engine and airframe design and technology. Having made such progress we must not regress. We must also be able to consider the implications of low level white noise should small, all electric aircraft become more prevalent. Within OCAVIA, the aviation accelerator will be able to consider the mix of CO2, noise, economics, societal development etc when inserting new modes of propulsion into aircraft and by default into the aviation system more widely.

Should the end target for 2050 be battery electric or hydrogen for sustainable aviation? 

There is no silver bullet and it is already clear that there will be different solutions for different categories of aircraft This is the question and the FlyZero programme of the ATI will be considering the systems at play of such options. Where OCAVIA will support such decisions will be to understand the implications of the different propulsion systems on aviation as a system and ultimately on the communities it serves. The Aviation Impact Evaluator will consider social, economic and environmental levers and the energy end to end system will consider implications of such systems on things such as the national grid. OCAVIA is very much a system of systems integration construct to support decision making of which propulsion systems to take forwards.

Are there any basic engineering/physics reasons why net zero aviation is an intrinsically harder problem than say net zero cars, trains or vehicles? It feels as if getting things in the air safely should require more energy consumption than other methods of transport.

You have part answered your own question, getting an aircraft airborne and keeping it airborne demands a vast amount of energy and kerosene has served this aim very well. Some of the other challenges of aviation relate to 1) regulation and 2) volumes of products. Aerospace and by default aviation is a very regulated sector, and rightly so. Technologies, products, processes of manufacture they all have to conform to regulations. Some of these have yet to be developed for aviation so new are the potential solutions. This creates a high barrier to entry for companies to consider joining the aviation’s race to zero. And once solutions are found, unlike cars for instance, it 1000s that are made verus 100s of 1000s, this too is a barrier to entry. These elements contribute to longer leader times of development, stereotypically 10 to 15 years. Within OCAVIA though rapid technology prototyping is taking years into months and these technologies can then be modelled and simulated against aircraft and wider aviation systems to “prototype” the whole aviation system. This approach is a radical and could see the UK leapfrog developments in sustainable aviation.

Very interested to hear thoughts on how and when we will start to develop the training infrastructure to train the future engineers/ techs and pilots that will be needed to operate and maintain these new Aircraft types?

This is hugely important. Future systems will require new skills, new capabilities. As OCAVIA is involving the New Bucks University, a leading light in aviation skills development as concepts are simulated a greater understanding of operational requirements will emerge. This will create a demand signal of new skills required by the industry stimulating new degrees, new apprenticeship programmes, a whole breed of future aviation specialists.

These were a few of the questions at the recent webinar and it has shown us that this is a topic of great interest with significant potential for the universities and businesses of Oxford to Cambridge Arc to make a huge difference.

Watch the webinar

Watch the video showcasing the work of the universities 

Read the OCAVIA report

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