A sustainable future of aerospace
While Covid-19 may have put a temporary damper on our desire for air travel, sustainability is the word on everyone’s lips when looking at the future of the aviation industry. As aerospace sets its sights on greener solutions, key differentiators will include robust supply chains, lighter, stronger materials, more efficient engines, and alternative fuel sources.
Aerospace can be divided into three main sub-sectors, each with its own set of issues. When it comes to the space segment, the key challenge is ramping up, with a number of leading players planning very ambitious launch programs in the coming years. In defense, a different kind of step-change is on the cards.
The third sub-sector, and the one which is most immediately impacted by the drive for sustainability, is commercial aeronautics and, more specifically, aviation.
Aviation faces considerable challenges
“Between geopolitical tension impacting supply chains and raw material access, combined with growing demand for more sustainable flights coming from both governments and society, the commercial aviation industry is facing more than its fair share of challenges,” says Guirec Guyon, Global Industry Manager Aerospace at Sandvik Materials Technology (SMT).
Although the need to improve environmental performance has been a hot topic for some time, the aviation industry has not been as quick to respond as other sectors.
“The aviation industry is quite conservative, and changes don’t happen overnight,” says Christofer Hedvall, Manager Business Unit Specialized Units at SMT. “This is not necessarily a bad thing, since we don’t want planes falling out of the sky.”
More needs to be done
However, a paper by global consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG), argues that more needs to be done if the industry is to achieve its objectives.
“The industry has set ambitious targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and it is currently not on track to achieve them. As awareness grows about the environmental impact of air travel, and as consumer preferences and behaviors shift, the industry’s profit pools are increasingly at risk,” says BCG’s paper entitled The Sustainability Opportunity for Aerospace.
So what can be done to speed up the green transition?
According to Hedvall, material choice can have a major impact.
“By using materials that are lighter, aircraft weigh less and therefore need less fuel to fly,” he says.
Stainless steel or titanium?
SMT’s advanced stainless steel and titanium alloys are already being used in the pipes and tubes that make up aircraft hydraulic systems. Whereas titanium provides the lightness that is so key to increased fuel efficiency, some parts are better suited to stainless steel due to pressure requirements.
“The ability to cope with higher pressures and temperatures allows engines to run more efficiently,” he continues, adding that this is will be a key focal area for SMT going forward.
“Engine producers are constantly promising airlines more efficient engines. To deliver that, they need more and more complicated material,” he continues.
Looking to the long-term, beyond improving the efficiency of existing solutions, many commentators believe a paradigm shift is on the horizon, as the industry prepares for the arrival of hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Hydrogen emerging as the fuel of the future
“Like elsewhere in society, hydrogen is fast emerging as the most interesting alternative fuel source,” says Hedvall.
Hydrogen has the potential to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, opening the door to the possibility of sustainable long-distance transportation, on land, in the water and in the air.
Earlier this year, Airbus signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Linde, a leading global industrial gases and engineering company. Going forward, the two will work together to develop hydrogen infrastructure at airports worldwide.
"We are advancing well with hydrogen as an important technology pathway to achieve our ambition of bringing a zero-emission commercial aircraft to market by 2035. Building the infrastructure is just as crucial. That's why we are working closely with partners like Linde, who have decades of experience and expertise worldwide in the storage and distribution of hydrogen," said Sabine Klauke, Chief Technical Officer, Airbus.
The volume conundrum
Needless to say, developing the necessary technology to produce, transport and store the huge volumes of hydrogen that would be required to fuel the aviation industry of the future represents no small feat. Even more so considering that the volume of hydrogen is four times as much as the one of kerosene.
This has prompted widespread concerns about how the hydrogen will be delivered to airports, whether this will require the use of pipelines or liquid hydrogen tankers, how it will be securely transported on board aircraft and whether hydrogen-powered aircraft can be safely serviced and refueled alongside conventional aircraft.
However, as Guirec Guyon is quick to point out, hydrogen as a fuel source is not some new-fangled invention. Although new applications will be needed to make it usable at the scale the commercial aviation industry would require, it has already been successfully employed in space and automotive applications for some time. This, he says, is where SMT’s expertise comes into play.
A “head start” in hydrogen
"At SMT, we have been supplying tubing and raw materials for the space and automotive segments for many years,” says Guyon. “We already have the alloys that have been tried and tested in the field and are proven to be suitable for use with hydrogen applications".
“If any company is looking for a hydrogen fuel materials expert that can support new development projects, SMT is that expert,” he continues.
SMT is also well positioned to contribute to a more stable supply chain.
“We have a fully integrated mill where everything is manufactured by SMT from melting through to the end product,” says Guyon. “Ours is one of the most secure production routes in the business, and are doing everything in our power to make sure our customers are not impacted by irregular supplies from volatile markets.”
Regional footprint and sustainable vision
SMT’s robust supply is further enhanced by its strong regional footprint.
“We are constantly striving to be as close as possible to our aerospace customers in different regions of the world,” explains Hedvall. “Our integrated, high-quality production gives us a very strong position in the tubular aerospace industry.”
SMT is also a sustainable supplier. Its efforts to limit environmental impact range from material recycling programs to initiatives designed to improve energy efficiency and reduce water consumption and raw material use, as well as an advanced regeneration strategy.
Sustainability is part of our DNA
“Sustainability is part of our DNA,” explains Guyon. “From developing the materials for some of the world’s most advanced sustainable technologies to minimizing the impact of our own processes, it is at the very core of our strategy and promise for the future.”