Rolls-Royce chief sees trans-Atlantic sustainable aviation fuel breakthrough in 2023

Challenge of flying across the ocean solely powered by clean fuel can be met by end of next year

Phill O’Dell – Rolls-Royce Director of Flight Operations flying the Rolls-Royce’s ACCEL project - Spirit of Innovation plane. Photo: Rolls-Royce
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Warren East, the boss of aircraft engine company Rolls-Royce, has predicted the first transatlantic flight powered solely by sustainable aviation fuel will take place by the end of 2023 to meet a big symbolic target for the industry as it seeks carbon neutrality.

The engine and engineering executive added the company's own efforts to power an electric engine passenger plane that would carry paying customers can happen by the middle of this decade. But it is the sustainable aviation fuel that will provide the first solutions for the mass market and longer distances.

"There have been thousands probably tens of thousands of flights powered by [sustainable] aviation fuel," Mr East told the CogX conference in London. "Sustainable aviation accounts for about 1 per cent of aviation fuel generally. What people do is use a small portion of sustainable fuels in a mix — 100 per cent is technically possible. We're testing our engines right now and have produced several engines right now."

The aviation industry needs the oil and gas firms to provide the capacity to sustain the flights as well. Ed Daniels, the sustainability director of Shell, said it was working to increase the supply but warned without government-directed incentives, the investment prospects were constrained.

"We are in the process of building supply facilities [for sustainable aviation fuel] around the world," he told the panel. "The real fundamental is that sustainable aviation fuel as we best understand it today will be two, three, maybe four times, the cost of regular aviation fuel.

"So no commercial enterprise is going to wilfully take on what is going to be an additional cost burden without having the policies and the regulation put in place that says thou shalt use sustainable aviation. And so I think we're going to need policymakers and regulators around the world to think carefully about how, over the coming few decades, the policy will ratchet up such that 2050 we've got 100 per cent sustainable aviation fuel."

In the long run, Mr East has his sights on hydrogen-powered planes to make the six-hour-plus journey across the Atlantic Ocean, but this breakthrough could be as far away.

"It will be fantastic if I could hop on an aeroplane and go to the other side of the Atlantic and all the energy stored to do that in hydrogen on the earth. I'm pretty confident that one day I will have those incredibly complex systems to easily burn the hydrogen on the aircraft, but can I store enough hydrogen on the aeroplane? And importantly, can I store it safely and economically?"

"If we wait until our solution, which is probably likely to be sometime around 2040 some time, then it's too late."

Mr East also said Rolls-Royce's development of battery-powered electric planes would soon take to the skies with passengers. "In some parts of aviation, the solution can be done with today's electrical technology," he said. "We expect by the middle of this decade to have Rolls-Royce-powered aircraft with paying passengers, relying on pure electric, to carry a relatively small number of people, who are going a relatively short distance, maybe 10 people for 250 miles or so.

Spirit of Innovation

Rolls-Royce Spirit of Innovation electric plane is the world’s fastest electric vehicle after setting what it believes are three world records.

The aerospace manufacturer said last year it had submitted data to the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), which controls and certifies world aeronautical and astronautical records.

Rolls-Royce takes once step closer to electric flight with 'Spirit of Innovation'

Rolls-Royce takes once step closer to electric flight with 'Spirit of Innovation'

The three electric-vehicle speed world records

1. Fastest electric aircraft over three kilometres

On November 16, 2021, the Spirit of Innovation reached a top speed of 555.9kph over three kilometres, smashing the existing record by 213.04kph.

2. Fastest electric aircraft over 15 kilometres

In further runs at the UK Ministry of Defence’s Boscombe Down experimental aircraft testing site, the aircraft achieved 532.1kph over 15 kilometres — 292.8kph faster than the previous record.

3. Fastest time to climb to 3000 metres

It also broke the fastest time to climb to 3,000 metres by 60 seconds with a time of 202 seconds.

Fastest electric vehicle yet?

The aircraft clocked a maximum speed of 623kph, which the company believes makes it the world’s fastest all-electric vehicle, although that achievement has not been submitted to the FAI.

Updated: June 14, 2022, 7:39 AM