New funding required as first phase of Omega's academic aviation sustainability project draws to a close
UK Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon and Omega's Roger Gardner at last week's Omega Dissemination Conference
Mon 9 Mar 2009 – The two-year Omega project, a collaboration of nine UK universities researching a wide range of aviation impacts on climate change and the environment, has drawn to a close. The ambitious £5 million pound ($6.4m) programme, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has carried out 40 different studies and Omega is now disseminating their findings to industry and government stakeholders. Funding has yet to be sourced for the next stage of project but Chief Executive Roger Gardner believes Omega has a continuing and crucial role to play in developing and transferring knowledge to the aviation sector.
“Omega has injected a new energy into the quest for aviation sustainability,” he says. “All the individual bits of what we have carried out could theoretically have been done without Omega but I firmly believe that would not have happened. The gearing benefits of bringing so many disciplines and interests around a single table have stimulated new thinking and ideas.
“What we have done is lay the foundations for some serious work that will chase down the big science uncertainties and try to deliver some of the forerunner solutions. I think this UK capability is something of a beacon of innovative excellence which will spur further collaborations and accelerate the pace of action addressing the sustainability problem.”
Omega has been split into three main thematic areas – science, technology and economics – with eight main topic areas covering climate change, local air quality, noise, new and emerging aircraft technology, operational efficiency, alternative fuels, mitigation policy and demand. The project has been led by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) with input from Cambridge, Cranfield, Leeds, Loughborough, Oxford, Reading, Sheffield and Southampton universities.
“What the Omega programme has really done is bring the economists and technologists into the same room for the first time in a meaningful way. This is a very challenging area, especially in terms of the economics, and getting these academics to talk the same language is hard,” says David Lee, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MMU and Omega science thematic leader.
“The low level of collaboration between academics at different universities has been a long-standing problem for the UK, and the field of aviation-related science and technology is a classic example,” concurs Ian Poll, Professor of Aerospace Engineering, Cranfield University and technology thematic leader on the project. “That’s why Omega is such a breath of fresh air. For me, this has been one of the most interesting and stimulating programmes that I have been involved in.”
Prof Lee expects that in 12 months time, once all the work has been fully collated, the information gathered will start to influence policy thinking. “A period of reflection now for Omega is actually no bad thing. It can reflect on what it has achieved, where the gaps are and what we should do next,” he says. “However, it is crucial that momentum is now maintained and that academics continue working together having come this far.”
Dr Andreas Schäfer of Cambridge University and Omega’s economics thematic leader believes Omega is increasingly being recognized as a crucial opportunity in that it can serve as an honest broker conveying unbiased information to government and industry. “Equally important, it is enabling communities that should be interacting better in our efforts to protect the environment, while minimizing the adverse effects on the economy.”
Dr Schäfer hopes that Omega can position itself to have a strong voice in the advancement of the aerospace industry, for example in the development of the next generation of Airbus and Boeing planes, by raising awareness of sustainability issues.
“There is much work still to do,” he says. “In my field we need to understand better the various implications of economic or regulatory instruments on the environment, aviation industry, economy and society at large. Like much of this debate, what might appear simple questions invariably lead to far more complex answers.”
The Omega project has attempted to address a number of these complex issues. For example, significant work has been carried out by teams led by Prof Piers Forster at the University of Leeds and Prof Keith Shine from the University of Reading into understanding the effects of aircraft-induced contrails on cirrus cloud formation, which has an adverse warming potential. By simply flying at a lower altitude, contrails could be avoided, they conclude. However, says Cranfield’s Prof Poll, aircraft fly at precisely the height they do for reasons of performance and fuel burn efficiency. He also points out that aircraft noise could also prove a public nuisance if planes flew lower.
Another environmental trade-off considered by Omega studies looked at Advanced Open Rotor engines, currently being researched by some of the major engine manufacturers, which have the promise of significantly lower fuel burn, and therefore lower CO2 emissions, but at the expense of greater noise levels as they do not have the protective cowling of conventional turbofans. The Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton has investigated the likely impact of a number of designs of large open-rotor powered aircraft during an entire flight operation from take-off to landing and has developed a noise simulation model to better understand the issue.
Roger Gardner says these and other studies being coordinated by Omega have laid the foundations for further investigation on key topics where environmental performance is the hurdle and the opportunity. “We are now defining the road maps for the knowledge that is required and, crucially, are now better placed to link delivery of that knowledge to the timescales for potential changes in technology, operations and policy.”
What next for Omega? Assuming funding can be forthcoming, Gardner believes in the next phase it should support fewer, larger and longer term studies. Speaking at last week’s Omega Dissemination Conference in London, he told delegates: “In our first phase, Omega went very broad, in some cases quite shallow, in other cases quite deeply, but the sense is that in our next incarnation we would be better off identifying some big challenges and to chase those down over specified periods to achieve them, perhaps three or even five years, and to ensure they respond to the needs of the broader community, taking into account industry strategies or government policy.”
Omega has pinpointed key areas for future investigation such as more studies into upper atmospheric science, the role of economic instruments in aviation sustainability, defining effective controls for noise problems, the use of sustainable fuels and releasing efficiencies for air traffic management and operations.
In the meantime, Gardner hopes the work carried out so far “does not sit on the shelf” and encourages all stakeholders and interested parties to seek out and download the study reports that are available on the Omega website. Last week, Omega published a 52-page magazine with interviews and articles highlighting much of the work it has undertaken during the first phase and this is now available as a PDF for downloading from the home page of its website.