Weight for it! Here come the electric planes

After decades of fossil fuel-powered jets, advances in materials, battery chemistry, and electrical systems are opening up the possibility of cleaner, greener, cheaper commercial flight.

But electrification requires plane makers to innovate, invest, work hard, and win the weight race. A recent Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre event discussed the pressing issues.

A quiet revolution is underway that could change the face of air travel for billions of passengers around the world.

The familiar roar of kerosene-fuelled jet engines at take-off and landing may one day be replaced by battery powered propulsion, with travellers flying in aircraft developed through generative designs and built with ultra-lightweight materials.

CROP Aerospace Aviation Aircraft - STOCK image courtesy of Depositphotos.

This was one of the key messages at a recent two-day conference on lightweighting organised by the University of Sheffield’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC).

Delegates heard that the dream of electric flight – which once seemed confined to smaller aircraft flying short distances – is now being led by the big players in the industry who are fast advancing plans for hybridised and fully electric flight.

Airbus, for instance, has teamed up with Siemens and Rolls-Royce to develop a commercially viable 50-100 seat hybrid aircraft which could enter service by the 2030s.

Boeing, meanwhile, is combining its own R&D talents with start-ups such as Washington aircraft developer Zunum Aero.

Easyjet is talking to the Seattle-based Right Electric on the design of a commercial passenger aircraft seating about 100 people.

Aviation’s environmental impact

The big driver for this acceleration in the pace of R&D is not just the desire to be early entrants in a potentially lucrative market, but also the desire to meet increasingly stringent environmental legislation to mitigate the impact of climate change.

According to the Air Transport Action Group, aviation is responsible for just 2% of all man-made CO2 emissions, and 12% of CO2 emissions from transport sources.

The Rolls-Royce Olympus engine, and it’s associated robot and human helper
The Rolls-Royce Olympus engine, and it’s associated robot and human helper – image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.

However, while today’s aircraft are about 80% more fuel efficient per passenger kilometre than they were 50 years ago, air traffic growth is expected to double over the next 20 years, prompting real concern about what this increasing traffic level will mean for the environment.

Delivering his keynote address to a packed audience at the AMRC’s Factory 2050, the vice president of technology at GKN, Paul Perera, confronted this issue head on.

Citing the climate change champion Greta Thunberg’s claim that her generation’s future had been ‘stolen’ by industry so that ‘a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money’ while ‘carrying on as if nothing has happened,’ Perera made a powerful case that the very opposite is true.

The search for sustainability

Like others in the sector, sustainability is one of GKN’s core values; a fact reflected in the record levels of investment – in excess of £75m – it is making in the development of greener, cleaner technologies.

Electric Planes - Green environmentally friendly vehicle concept - 3d rendering - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

As part of the European Clean Sky initiative, the largest European aeronautical research programme, GKN, is playing a leading role in developing innovative technologies to reduce CO2 emissions and noise levels by 2050.

Driven by legislation and international climate agreements, the aviation industry is edging ever closer to a low-carbon solution to propulsion.

Electrically powered aircraft, either hybrid or all electric, will not only enable the big players in the industry to maintain market share, but also offer the prospect of cheaper flight as build and maintenance costs could be reduced with fewer mechanical parts to wear out.

With less noise pollution, the industry is imaging a time when airports can operate virtually around the clock and be built closer to urban areas.

A technological revolution

To get to this stage, however, requires nothing short of a technological revolution.

While the push for electric cars is producing huge improvements in batteries and systems, aviation still has serious technical hurdles to overcome before electrified flight becomes a commercial reality:

  • battery and fuel cells are still far too heavy,
  • gas turbines remain far more efficient,
  • and, the risk to passenger safety from the heat generated by cables and other components needs to be resolved to overcome the terrifying prospect of electrical fires when using higher voltages in thinner air.

Partnerships and collaborations with researchers at the seven-member High Value Manufacturing Catapult (HVMC), which make up a network of R&D talent across the UK, are addressing all these issues, spurred on by private investments and stimulated by the government’s Industrial Strategy with its focus on clean growth, the future of mobility, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

Perera and GKN, along with the other major players in aerospace, are well connected within the HVMC, with extensive partnerships across the Catapult, from the National Composite Centre in Bristol (close to the location for GKN’s global research facility) to the Warwick Manufacturing Group (home to the £80m Faraday-funded batteries hub) and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) in the Midlands, through to the AMRC in the north of England, and the Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC) on the Clyde in Scotland.

Lifting the weight

Rolls-Royce is building a high-performance electric aircraft - image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.
Rolls-Royce is building a high-performance electric aircraft – image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.

One of those engaged with the HVMC network is Alan Partridge, global head of materials at Rolls-Royce, and a keynote speaker at the conference.

Partridge explored how aircraft architecture, digitalisation and electrification are shaping the future of flight and how novel composites are transforming propulsion, with weight savings of 70% on key components.

The pace of this change is being accelerated by the application of digital technologies and processes that include model-based systems engineering, model definition and production planning with the development of digital twins to create a virtual production system, qualification and certification processes shaping and guiding physical design and delivery.

For Perera, additive manufacturing (AM) is central to the delivery of sustainable, low-carbon air travel through the creation of AM-designed parts, AM-enabled systems and AM-designed systems.

“Additive manufacturing is not evolutionary,” he told the conference. “It is a revolutionary set of technologies, enabling the creation of functional parts, lightweighting by topology optimisation and cost reductions by near net preforms.”

Great up north

GKN’s new UK Global Technology Centre, which is closely collaborating with members of the HVMC, includes composites work for the Airbus Wing of Tomorrow programme, with several key additive manufacture programmes and a factory for digital manufacturing fully aligned to the government’s unfolding Made Smarter Industrial Strategy programme.

McClaren Exterior.
McClaren Exterior.

For Keith Ridgway, executive dean and founder of the AMRC, the lightweighting challenge plays to the strengths of the HVMC, and to the north of England.

“The North – especially Lancashire and Yorkshire – has an incredible heritage in weaving materials. We’re now taking that knowledge base and, with the support of the Catapult and the Aerospace Technology Institute, investing in sophisticated looms that will weave the forms of future aircraft, reviving and revitalising an industry which defined earlier industrial revolutions and is now shaping the revolution in future flight.”

But it was McLaren’s executive director of business strategy, Ken Smart, who summed up most succinctly and positively the challenges and opportunities ahead.

Having led the re-shoring of the iconic supercars’ production from Austria to Rotherham, Ken noted that the UK has the world’s most advanced facilities and technology; it has strong support from national, regional and local government; and it has the skills and talent pool to win the weight race.

And this makes the UK a leader in this field.

Scotland opens a Lightweight Manufacturing Centre

The £8.9m Lightweight Manufacturing Centre was officially opened by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon - image courtesy of University of Strathclyde.
The £8.9m Lightweight Manufacturing Centre was officially opened by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon – image courtesy of University of Strathclyde.

Scotland’s recently opened Lightweight Manufacturing Centre will develop lighter, more efficient, components for high-value industries, including automotive and aerospace, and represents the first stage of establishing the £65m National Manufacturing Institute Scotland.

The £8.9m new centre was officially opened by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in June, and could benefit other enterprises looking to replace traditional manufacturing processes and materials with the next generation of innovative solutions.

The Scottish government provided £3.9m in funding for the project; the University of Strathclyde provided £1.6m.

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, Principal of the University of Strathclyde, said: “Lightweighting technology holds huge promise for a wide range of sectors, from making aircraft and vehicles lighter and more energy efficient, to improving renewable energy technology performance, and developing the next generation of materials for health care.”

“This centre will help us build on Scotland’s long history of innovation. Businesses across Scotland will benefit from access to state-of-the-art equipment and opportunities for collaboration and research and development,” added Sturgeon. “The opportunities that stem from lightweight manufacturing will help increase their competitiveness.”

David Smith, director of National Opportunities at Scottish Enterprise, which provided £3.4m in funding for the project, said: “Manufacturing is experiencing rapid advances driven by digital technologies, automation and global supply chain opportunities that are transforming the way we design, build and sell products and services.”

Sabrina Malpede, managing director of ACT Blade, an Edinburgh-based wind turbine manufacturer, said: “Working with the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre has become an integral part of our plans to develop the next generation of wind turbines blades, the ACT Blade, which aims to reduce cost of wind energy for future generations.”


All non-attributed images courtesy of Depositphotos