Let's fly the greener skies

Big bucks are on offer for researchers who can help make aircraft more environmentally friendly, writes David Schley

July 16, 2009

Millions of pounds are up for grabs for academics who want to engage with industry and "clean the skies" by developing quieter and more efficient aircraft.

More than EUR26 million (£22m) is on offer from the European Union in the first call from its Clean Sky Joint Technology Initiative (JTI) for aeronautical research and development. Universities, research institutes and firms can now bid to undertake work on a total of 72 different topics spanning five broad areas.

The Clean Sky JTI is a £1.4 billion EU-wide Public Private Partnership that will run until 2017 and involves all the major European aviation companies, including Airbus and Rolls-Royce.

Janez Potocnik, EU Commissioner for Science and Technology, said: "Clean Sky highlights our commitment to develop breakthrough technologies to significantly reduce the impact of air transport on the environment and strengthen the competitiveness of this vital sector."

Besides cutting emissions, the programme aims to reduce noise pollution, promote the use of greener materials and achieve more efficient flight patterns, with the first flight tests planned for 2013.

The biggest pot of funding on offer is for research into sustainable engines. A total of £7.2m is available across eight topics tackling noise and air pollution. The aim is to ensure that the aircraft engines of 2020 are radically greener than those in use today. Five new engines will be built that will be lighter and able to operate at lower pressures.

Another area aims to balance the need for energy-efficient flight paths with their effect on local communities. Some £6.1m of funding is available, with topics including research on ground operations and electronic aircraft management.

Researchers are also being asked to develop helicopters designed for short-distance travel, such as air ambulances, and to come up with wing designs with lower drag to reduce fuel consumption.

Mixed views

Vassilios Pachidis, lecturer in gas- turbine performance simulation at Cranfield University, which is an associate of the JTI, said the call was an exciting opportunity for researchers to be "at the centre of aviation developments in Europe".

Clean Sky is "still at the beginning in terms of technical work", he said, and topics included "challenging areas that have not been foreseen". He said the calls were designed to address work that fell outside the capabilities of current JTI partners or that "current associates didn't want to engage in".

But not everyone is optimistic about the opportunities for the academy. Chris Atkin, professor of aeronautical engineering at City University and a former technical manager at defence firm QinetiQ, who was involved in planning the initiative, said there was "no scope for developing new ideas" because the topics were too prescriptive.

He thought it likely that the calls had "been developed with particular suppliers in mind", and that academic bidders would "already have strong links with one of the existing partners".

Future calls are expected to look for research on the use of raw materials and the potential for recycling aircraft. There should also be funding opportunities to contribute to the JTI's technology evaluation phase, which will aim to ensure that the environmental advances achieved in different areas of the programme are maintained when the technology is brought together.

According to the JTI, the aviation industry currently accounts for 2 per cent of man-made CO2 emissions, but this is predicted to rise to 3 per cent by 2050.

The UK's Aviation Environment Federation, a green lobby group, says aviation was responsible for 7.6 per cent of emissions in the UK in 2007, compared with 20.8 per cent from ground traffic. However, if present rates continue, aircraft emissions will overtake road transport's by 2020. Although adding to the problem of global warming, the aviation industry accounts for 2.5 per cent of the EU's gross domestic product, which could grow by 1.8 per cent over the next 20 years.

Organisations can bid on their own or in consortiums until 31 August, with agreements due to be signed by the end of the year. Projects are expected to last up to 18 months. In all cases, institutions will be expected to contribute at least 25 per cent of the costs, with firms picking up 50 per cent. Further calls will be issued over the next three to four years.

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