It’s no secret that the aviation industry contributes to CO2 emissions. Aviation business leaders are therefore under pressure to take huge leaps in climate action to ensure the future of flight can be more sustainable. Technological advancement is a crucial element of that decarbonization – including new, climate-first designs of engines.
Riccardo Procacci is CEO of Avio Aero, an aviation company with more than 5,000 employees across Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic, who joined the organization in 2013 to lead the transition of the team as it was acquired by GE. The company develops next-generation propulsion systems for commercial and military aviation, working alongside major universities and research centers as it focuses investment on research and development for the future of the aviation industry.
Q: Aviation is a crucial topic in a world tackling climate change – how can aviation become a climate-first industry?
A: We believe aviation and the ability to travel are essential because the world works better when it flies. Everyone in the world has a right to stay connected to family, friends, job opportunities and healthcare, not to mention the myriad other benefits of travel.
Avio Aero’s parent company, GE, is one of the world’s largest aircraft engine makers. We take seriously our responsibility to help lead aviation industry efforts to decarbonize commercial flight. Making air travel more sustainable is one of the biggest challenges the industry has faced, and the pandemic has only increased the industry’s focus on reducing our environmental impact.
Technology introduced by GE for commercial aircraft has resulted in today’s aircraft engines consuming 40 percent less fuel compared to engines manufactured in the 1970s. Looking forward, airlines and equipment manufacturers for aircraft and engines have strengthened commitments to reduce carbon emissions from commercial flight, announcing new goals to be net-zero by 2050. At the recent 41st general assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), member countries adopted a similar goal, providing international government support. For us, these announcements mean more combined efforts and investment.
Carbon emission reductions will come from three areas: fleet renewal and technological breakthroughs on aircraft and engines, alternative lower-carbon fuels, and improved air traffic management. Alternative energy sources are key. Commercial aviation won’t be able to reach its collective goals to reduce carbon emissions without wider adoption and availability of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), which has lower lifecycle carbon emissions compared to petroleum-based jet fuel.
Q: What is GE doing to work toward a more sustainable future for aviation?
A: We will have the technologies ready to meet the industry’s net-zero ambition. To that end, Avio Aero and other GE Aerospace European operations are collaborating with the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking of the European Commission to develop and advance technologies for hydrogen-powered, hybrid electric and ultra-efficient aircraft.
We’re maturing multiple technologies to achieve at least 20 percent better fuel efficiency and 20 percent fewer CO2 emissions compared to our most efficient engines today. This includes the development of new advanced engine architectures, such as the open fan, compact engine core designs and hybrid electric propulsion systems. These engine technologies are being developed to be fuel flexible with SAF and hydrogen.
We’ll see open fan, hybrid electric and hydrogen technologies go through ground and flight tests this decade. What we learn could lead to the development of new engine products for entry-into-service in the mid-2030s.
Growing adoption and availability of SAF is also significant to reaching net-zero. All GE engines can operate on approved SAF blends today.
Q: What does innovation look like in aircraft engines today?
A: The next-generation propulsion systems that GE is developing could provide a step-change in emissions reductions. Our target is to achieve more than 20 percent better fuel efficiency in future single-aisle commercial aircraft compared to the current state of the art – the single largest improvement our company has undertaken.
The open fan engine design is key to achieving our 20 percent target and Avio Aero contributes to development of open fan architectures under Europe’s Clean Aviation program in collaboration with Safran Aircraft Engines. We also contributed to Europe’s Clean Sky 2 program, exploring multiple architectures for hybrid electric.
Additionally, our new European designed and developed Catalyst engine is the first turboprop in aviation history made with 3D-printed components, enabling a lighter and more fuel-efficient engine, reducing carbon emissions.
Q: What has changed over the past few years that’s making GE and engine technology a crucial part of today’s climate innovation conversation?
A: Past technology innovations in the aviation industry that improved fuel efficiency were driven by fuel prices, which have fluctuated over time.
What makes today different is that climate change – and the price of carbon – will continue to drive and increase the urgency to introduce propulsion systems that result in more sustainable flight. And these kinds of disruptive technologies that revolutionize aircraft engines are needed to truly reach our net-zero ambitions.
The other difference from before is that our company has developed advanced technologies, both in our engine designs as well as in our design tools, which have enabled our engineers to advance the state-of-the-art beyond what was previously believed to be possible.
Q: What’s the European context? How are EU citizens impacted by the work you do now and in the future?
A: Avio Aero and GE have major operations across Europe, including in the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom, focused on one of the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry: decarbonization. And we have the ambition to deliver.
We are collaborating across industries, governments and universities. In addition to plans to continue testing our engines with 100 percent SAF, we joined Europe’s Renewable and Low-Carbon Fuels Alliance, focused on boosting alternative fuel production and supply. Through the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking, we’re developing advanced engine technologies for future aircraft. Additionally, Avio Aero joined the Alliance for Zero-Emission Aviation, supporting the introduction of new technologies with zero emissions during flight.
Q: What gives you hope and optimism in terms of taking climate action?
A: It’s never been a more exciting time to be an engineer in the aviation industry. Tackling big challenges is what we do, and disruptive technologies such as hybrid electric propulsion will enable a smarter, more efficient future of flight.
Learn more what GE Aerospace is doing for the future of flight here.