Alternative energy solutions for aerospace

The third theme for ATI Boeing Accelerator Cohort 2

We’re excited to announce the three themes for the second cohort of the ATI Boeing Accelerator — Industry 4.0, Lifecycle and Resilience, and Energy — as part of the larger sustainability topic.

The UK has set a bold target to reduce emissions to net-zero carbon by 2050. The greatest challenge for the future of energy is finding and implementing low carbon solutions. At the ATI Boeing Accelerator, we are interested in connecting with startups developing solutions for energy sources, storage, and management.

Read on to find out what our sponsors and partners — Boeing and the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) — are looking for from the Energy theme.

ATI Boeing Accelerator Cohort 2 Theme: Energy

Battery and Fuel Systems

The first part of our energy theme covers battery lifecycle optimisation, alternatives to rare earth materials, hydrogen management solutions, and sustainable aviation fuels.

For future zero-emissions platforms, the aerospace industry is looking for high energy density and power density delivered through safety-critical battery and fuel systems. Key innovations will include high-performance battery systems, lightweight, and new technologies for storage, management, and distribution of zero-carbon fuels.

In battery technology, there is a strong need for improved energy density and cost. cost. Researchers are currently working on new battery material that could enable long-range electric vehicles. As Ed Lovelace, Electrified Propulsion Tech Development and Strategy Lead for Boeing NeXt and Aurora puts it:

“Batteries have progressed through the growth of hybrid and electric ground vehicles including safety, cost, and volumetric density and have now reached a stage where a 1500–2000 kg vehicle can travel over 300 miles and so further progress in the ground vehicle sector will be more focused on continued cost and production rate improvements.”

In April, our first cohort and aerospace community discussed the future of battery technology with Huw Hampson-Jones from Oxis Energy. A UK-based company, Oxis Energy are developing innovative Lithium Sulfur [Li-S] battery chemistry that will revolutionise the rechargeable battery market. This is a great example of a startup that could fit the Energy theme, but not necessarily tied to the same maturity stage (Oxis Energy is a later-stage company).

We asked Boeing what kind of innovation in battery technology and energy will move the needle:

“Ground vehicles are driven more by volumetric density and cost whereas aerospace market opportunities are driven by safety and gravimetric density. The additional challenge is that safety and density typically trade off against each other, so innovations that can produce improvements on both axes at the system level including all necessary subsystems (e.g. thermal management systems) will have the greatest impact.” — Ed Lovelace, Electrified Propulsion Tech Development and Strategy Lead for Boeing NeXt and Aurora

“A step-function improvement in either energy density or cost or both will enable Advanced Air Mobility to go from being a specialized service to an affordable business case for wide use.” — Ben LeGrand, Senior Manager at the Boeing Future Mobility Analysis Center

Apart from redefining energy storage through battery technology, stakeholders in aerospace have their eyes set on sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and, most recently, the potential of hydrogen fuel cells. In a recent sustainability article, I covered not only why this current period, during the pandemic, could become the catalyst for pushing the sustainability agenda to the forefront but also, why SAF and hydrogen play such a significant role in the future of aerospace.

Notable milestones for SAF include the industry achieving an average of 2% CO2 reduction per year across the entire airliner fleet from 2008–2019, securing seven production pathways approved for commercial use (now available at several major airports across the globe) and to date, over 260,000 commercial flights being flown on a blend of SAF and conventional fuel and that is increasing daily.

While hydrogen power has become central to the decarbonisation strategy in the energy sector over the last few years, it still needs a lot of work, particularly around redesigning the aircraft, building proper infrastructure for fuel delivery, and lowering the price of production. We were delighted to have Zero Avia present their work at a recent ATI Boeing Accelerator showcase. The team is building the world’s first practical zero-emission aviation powertrain, based on hydrogen fuel cells.

Maintenance staff refuel an EL AL plane at Ben Gurion Airport, Israel. 1 April 1951. Flickr.

We spoke to Mark Augustyniewicz and Joseph Ellsworth, Senior Strategists on the Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BCA) Environmental Strategy team, about the current challenges and actions required from industry and government to get these innovative fuel concepts off the ground:

In the short-term (0–5 years), what is needed is supportive policy and investment (private, public, and private-public-partnership) to unlock commercial-scale sustainable aviation energy (i.e. drop-in sustainable fuels).

In the mid-term (5–10 years), larger volumes of renewable hydrogen are needed for the refining of sustainable fuels to further reduce their carbon footprint; this requires more efficient and numerous renewable hydrogen production options. Furthermore, additional sustainable fuel pathways will need to be discovered and brought to commercial scale. These additional fuel pathways will not only help bring online more sustainable fuel volumes, they will also serve as socioeconomic pillars supporting regional needs and opportunities. Lastly on this point, hybrid technology (e.g., batteries and fuel cells) will continue to require sustainable fuels as the main source of energy for all commercially sized aircraft, and thus the need to maintain a focus on sustainable fuel developments in the near and mid-term is further reinforced.

Energy Management

The second part of our energy theme covers thermal management, smart grid technology, fuel sensing and management, and future energy infrastructure.

Managing these new forms of energy will require zero-emission energy systems, and as we work towards this, we will need to see changes in existing storage infrastructure at all levels, both local and national. We spoke to Edward Andrews, Advanced Technologist at the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) on what’s required from future energy management solutions.

Next generation aircraft will require sophisticated solutions to manage the generation and transformation of energy effectively and efficiently, in mechanical, electrical, and chemical processes. More integrated systems architectures will drive new approaches to how energy is stored, transferred, and delivered to and from these systems, and new power and propulsion designs in particular will drive many of these requirements, including refuelling and recharging.

There is opportunity in exploring novel forms of energy capture, including in waste heat generation and vibration and in the smart control of energy, through improved sensing capability and automated distribution. Safety and certification of these systems will remain a key area of focus.

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash

We’re looking for innovation that will help ensure the aerospace industry becomes and remains sustainable for the long-term. We hope these insights from our sponsors and partners were helpful in better understanding the pressing challenges the industry faces when it comes to alternative energy sources.

Have you developed a solution in the Energy theme? To apply for Cohort 2, head on over to our website.

Stay up-to-date with our latest updates via Twitter and by subscribing to our mailing list.

If you’d like to connect with the Programme team, book in for our virtual Office Hours.

For more information about the programme, please contact the ATI Boeing Accelerator team:

Gabi Matic — gm@atiboeingaccelerator.com | linkedin.com/in/gabrielamatic
Wil Benton — wb@atiboeingaccelerator.com | linkedin.com/in/fatkidonfire
Ksenia Kurileva — kk@atiboeingaccelerator.com | linkedin.com/in/kseniakurileva

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