Aircraft electrification essential in fight against climate change

10th December 2021, 4:36 pm

Throughout history, the British have been responsible for many great inventions. Even before the Wright Brothers’ invention of the first powered airplane, Percy Pilcher had designed a powered triplane and built it in 1899. However, it was never flown because Percy sadly died in a gliding accident before he could make the powered flight and take the record years before the Wright Brothers claimed it.

As a nation our list on aviation firsts is second to none. We can now add to that list the world’s first flight using 100 percent synthetic fuel. This is a landmark step by the British RAF and their commercial partner towards slashing carbon emissions.

The flight using UL91 fuel went from Cotswold Airport on 02 November 2021. The flight lasted just 21 minutes in a Ikarus C42 Microlight. The flight was a success and has been logged by Guinness World Records as a world first for an aircraft using only synthetic fuel.

Apart from synthetic fuel we also need to move towards aircraft electrification. Electrification of our aircraft could be critical in order to meet climate objectives and there is a clear urgency to do so.

There is no doubt that electric propulsion is also gathering pace. Airbus back in 2010 developed the CriCri, the world’s first fully electric, four-engine aerobatic aircraft. However, something that more resembles the type of aircraft we are all used to travelling in when we go on holiday or business trips is Airbus’ E-Fan X created in partnership with Siemens and Rolls Royce which was launched in 2017. This, at the moment, demonstrator aircraft has been described as a real game-changer for the aviation industry and a key step change in Airbus’ ambition to help decarbonise aviation.

Rolls Royce also achieved recently achieved success with a new electric aircraft, which it says could be the fastest plane of its type in the world. The Spirit of Innovation achieved a top speed of 387.4 mph during one of three test runs in Wiltshire, which is believed to be a new world record.

It is all well and good for ‘The Spirit of Innovation’- a single engine, one-seater aircraft – achieving a world’s first, but what about the long-haul larger aircraft? The use of battery power to generate enough electricity to fly an aircraft a great distance is a long way off. We simply do not have the technology as yet, but the use of hydrogen as a fuel may be the solution.

However, there are infrastructure challenges that stand in the way of transferring from fossil fuel to hydrogen. Hydrogen is a gas but needs to be converted into liquid form in order for it to be put into the aircraft. The liquid hydrogen would be stored in the aircraft in a special container because the liquid hydrogen is very cold at -253 degrees centigrade. Also, the liquid is light which means the aircraft would need to be reconfigured as the aircraft would need to be balanced to account for the lightness of the fuel. Furthermore, the liquid hydrogen cannot be stored in the wings where the fuel used to fly an airplane is normally stored. I have seen models where the liquid hydrogen has been stored at the rear of the aircraft which enables to airplane to be properly balanced.

The downside of producing hydrogen is that it does take a lot of energy to get the hydrogen out of the water. However, if we are able to use energy sources such as wind turbine, hydropower or even nuclear plants to produce the hydrogen and use ships to transport it then this should eliminate the use of fossil fuel in the process.

Conventional aviation relying on fossil fuels for power is responsible for 12% of carbon dioxide emissions from all transport sources. The negative environmental impact is therefore considerable. Hybrid and ‘all electric’ aircraft are seen as the most promising solutions to date, as utilising electric power on-board, not only has a greatly reduced environmental impact, but also improves efficiency and performance.

We need industry and Governments to work together and explore ways of resolving problems to enable the infrastructure to be put in place. The solutions found will only serve to help other industries in their quest to find ways of cutting down on the use of fossil fuel. It is now not beyond the intelligence of humanity that we build on what has been achieved in over 100 years of powered flight and create aircraft that are propelled by fuels which do not destroy our planet.

Clarke Willmott is a national law firm with offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Southampton and Taunton. For more information visit


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