UK government announces major funding for green aerospace R&D and backing for sustainable aviation fuels
Wed 18 July 2018 – Following recent grants awarded to two projects developing potential commercial-scale sustainable aviation fuel production, the UK government has pledged £343 million ($448m) public and industry investment for R&D into cleaner and quieter civil aircraft. The government says a principle aim is for the UK to be at the forefront of the revolution in electric and hybrid planes, with £255 million going towards 18 new research and technology projects. A major beneficiary will be the E-Fan X project under development by Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens. Meanwhile, delegates from government, aerospace, fuel specialists, airlines and academia took part in a conference in Birmingham last week to seek out collaborative opportunities for a future UK sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) industry.
“The UK’s world-leading aerospace sector will be propelled into a new era of cleaner, greener flight through industry and government investment,” said the government’s Business and Energy Secretary, Greg Clark, announcing the investment at the beginning of this week’s Farnborough Airshow.
As well as the £255 million for the 18 research projects, which will be supported by the Aerospace Technology Institute and UK Research and Innovation, £68 million of the funding will go to increasing R&D opportunities for small and medium-sized companies and £20 million to drive improvements in long-term productivity across the aerospace sector.
Against a Brexit backdrop of uncertainty over Airbus parts manufacturing in the UK, the government says the new projects will “position the UK as a world leader for some of the most technologically advanced aircraft that will transform the face of aviation, including electric aircraft, hybrid-electric propulsion systems and future materials for aircraft manufacturing.”
In addition to the funding for the E-Fan X, which is currently developing a flying electrical demonstrator, Rolls-Royce will receive support for four projects including the next-generation UltraFan aircraft engine and ACCEL, which is aiming to accelerate the adoption of electrical technology in aviation through the design, build and flight test of a high-performance electric powertrain. Other beneficiaries include Bombardier, GKN and the National Composite Centre for the development of new aerostructure components and materials, and a future landing gear project by Airbus. Three research projects at the Welding Institute and the universities of Oxford and Sheffield will also receive funding.
“The development of quicker, quieter and cleaner aircraft will transform the UK’s transport market and open up new and more sustainable ways for passengers to travel between our cities and regions, and across the globe,” commented Baroness Sugg, Aviation Minister.
The ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuel for Clean Growth’ event in Birmingham was organised by the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Special Interest Group (SAF SIG) – an initiative launched last year by the government’s Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) – and the cross-industry group Sustainable Aviation. According to Michelle Carter, KTN’s Aerospace and Aviation Manager, there are now 140 organisations in the SAF SIG network and four new collaborations have already been established. The aim of the event was to bring together researchers, fuel businesses and the aviation industry to better understand the requirements for SAF and make new connections.
Rachel Solomon Williams, Head of Low Carbon Fuels at the UK Department for Transport (DfT), said binding targets for the use of advanced fuels were in place for road transport but as of April, aviation fuel suppliers can now opt in to the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.
“This is a very important change and one that reflects the direction biofuel production and use has to be heading,” she told delegates. “We are focused on incentivising aviation fuels that are produced from waste materials or residues and we have set a sub-target. These fuels can be double-counted so they are eligible for double rewards under the scheme.
“We must decide what we really want to use advanced biofuels for in the future and the probable answer is for those sectors like aviation and road freight transport that can’t easily decarbonise by other ways. We’re not sure how the two sectors can decarbonise quickly enough in the absence of low carbon fuels.”
As a result, the DfT has set up the Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition (F4C) with funding on offer up to £22 million for aviation and road freight advanced low carbon fuel projects in the UK. Seven projects have received Stage 1 grants for development funding, including the Velocys/British Airways municipal waste to jet fuel and the LanzaTech/Virgin Atlantic waste industrial gases to jet fuel projects. A smaller number of projects will receive Stage 2 grants early next year, sharing up to £20 million in matched capital funding to take them to the construction phase.
The DfT is expecting up to five plants to be producing fuel for the aviation and/or road freight markets by 2021.
“One of the criteria for a successful grant under F4C might be how likely it is a plant can get constructed in that time,” said Solomon Williams. “If everyone that comes to us and says it’s unfeasible then we can have a conversation about it but at the moment, that’s the target.”
Robert Boyd, IATA’s sustainable aviation fuel expert, told the conference that government policy was key.
“The reason most projects don’t accelerate faster is because of the commercial risk, so policies are required to reduce that risk,” he said. “If there is no level playing field and policies favour ground transport then that’s where the investment goes as it’s more economic to produce. There is also limited experience for equity investors and debt providers to understand the business case risk.”
He said the speed of change towards the production and use of SAF will be a function of research, infrastructure and policy. There was a need for the rapid construction or refurbishment of production facilities that would require an investment of around $100 billion a year on global infrastructure to supply the volumes required to meet the industry’s carbon reduction target for 2050.
“This sounds like a big number but it’s a perfectly reasonable figure if you look at what is spent on infrastructure in the traditional energy sector,” he said.
IATA estimates UK jet fuel demand from airports for domestic and international flights will rise from 16.15 billion litres in 2018 to 24.75 billion litres in 2030, which, said Boyd, could generate around $1.3 billion in profits for energy suppliers.
“This SAF SIG multi-stakeholder collaboration is already a very effective network and momentum is developing in the UK from which a lot of opportunities can come,” he added.