Decarbonizing the Aerospace Industry

BY GINA SPARROW | 11 min read

Innovation Heroes Episode.8 

🔊 Achieving net zero by 2050 represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity and the biggest transformation in the aerospace industry since the jet age! The challenge is monumental and extends far beyond finding viable fuels. Harry Malins and his team at ATI are using every angle possible to tackle innovation in aerospace.

Harry Malins is the Chief Innovation Officer at the Aerospace Technology Institute and is leading his team’s innovation efforts to decarbonize the aerospace industry and achieve net zero by 2050.  Tune in to discover the full approach they are taking to achieve this ambitious goal.

Host: Adam Olsen, Podcast Host - HeroX
Guest: Harry Malins, Chief Innovation Officer at the Aerospace Technology Institute

🔉 Click to listen 👇

Highlights from Episode 8

We've pulled out some highlight excerpts shared by Harry in his interview - tune into the full episode for more.


Strengthening the Aerospace Ecosystem

The Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) is an independent nonprofit organization and was established to ensure that the UK government and industry invests sufficiently into the development of the next generation of aerospace technologies. We play a number of roles - We developed the technology strategy for the UK's aerospace sector. We identify the priority technologies for funding within aerospace and then we channel funding from the government into projects within industry that will develop those priority next generation technologies.

We've got commitment to a £685 million budget and government funding over the current three-year period. Then that's also matched by a significant amount of industry funding and I guess beyond that, we also play quite an important role in strengthening the aerospace ecosystem. We advise government and industry, we help to convene the sector and establish consortia, bringing people together as partners within industry, and we try to create the conditions for innovation within aerospace.

Once-in-a-generation Transformation of the Aerospace Sector

As to what fires me up… I think really being able to play a role in a once-in-a-generation transformation of the aerospace sector, which is a sector that's got some of the world's most exciting technologies and plays such an important social and economic role globally. Transforming the sector, getting to net zero, as well as realizing the growth opportunity within aerospace, I think is really exciting, and definitely fires me up.

"being able to play a role in a once-in-a-generation transformation of the aerospace sector"

Priority Areas for Aerospace

I would say the sustainability side of things is becoming increasingly important and increasing central focus for aerospace. As an institute, over the last few years, we've certainly been focused on a number of the other priority areas for aerospace technology. We want to deliver growth that's clean but we want to also make aircraft and aviation more economically efficient. Of course, it needs to be safe and that's always an area of interest. And also convenient, there are a number of things that we, as passengers and as consumers, want from aerospace. One of those is sustainability but we also want it to be affordable, and accessible. I think aviation and aerospace provide a really important social and an economic good globally and so anything that we can do to drive the technology developments that is going to enable that we'll focus on that. But yes, absolutely, at the moment the focus is really increasingly becoming the transition to net zero, just because aerospace is such a difficult sector to abate.

The FlyZero Projects

That was a really great example of bringing together a large group of people to try and advance the state of knowledge and grapple with some of the real challenges in aerospace. The FlyZero Projects ran through 2021 and concluded just in March of this year. And for the project ATI brought together a team of 100 people - it was 100 engineers, academics, and other experts, including those from some of the most important and most innovative aerospace companies in the U.K. but also airlines and others from the broader aviation ecosystem. The team was set with the challenge of answering the question of whether zero carbon emission flights are going to be both technically and commercially feasible. I think reassuringly, the answer was yes.

The Most Viable Zero-carbon Emission Fuel

So, the team found that liquid hydrogen is actually the most viable zero-carbon emission fuel. And that it has potential both for fuel cell applications, but also combustion - in a gas turbine - for larger aircraft that can go longer distances and carry more passengers. Which was quite an exciting development actually. I think prior to FlyZero Projects hydrogen probably wasn't taken as seriously as it could or should have been as a potential fuel.

Hydrogen-Powered Flight

The FlyZero Project developed three concept aircraft that use hydrogen and the findings were really quite extensive. They've all been published on our website. All the reports from that, or a large number of the reports from that, are openly accessible on our website. They cover everything from the aircraft technologies themselves, through to the market opportunity, the infrastructure requirements, the underpinning economics and all the rest.

And so a large part of our focus is now on progressing those recommendations from the project to make hydrogen-powered flight a reality - which is a huge change for the sector.

How "Open" is Aerospace?

I would say aerospace actually is quite a collaborative sector and we've seen a lot of that certainly through the FlyZero project but also with the network of people that were on FlyZero then going back into their original companies and creating a bit of a network of experts in hydrogen and zero carbon aerospace that sits across the U.K. The aerospace sector has generally been fairly collaborative, even where there are direct competitors working in a space. They may have common interests with regard to things like certification and other areas that mean that there are areas that they're going to collaborate around. I think the aerospace sector is relatively open.

Big Impact Technology

There's a lot going on in aerospace at the moment. There are things like advanced air mobility or urban air mobility, which I think are really exciting concepts and it's going to be interesting to see how they progress. There's perhaps a bit more uncertainty around some of those segments of the market, but some really exciting things are being developed.

But I think for me, probably liquid hydrogen-powered flight is the most exciting technology at the moment, or the most exciting opportunity at the moment. Partly because it will have the biggest impact at the large commercial end of the market that's responsible for most emissions, but also the largest part of the market.

Exiting the Jet Age

It will also mean really the biggest transformation of the aerospace sector since the jet age. Not only will the aircraft that we fly in look completely different in future, but liquid hydrogen flight will need completely new infrastructure at airports, it’ll need new buying behaviors from airlines, new supporting energy production infrastructure to support hydrogen at scale, and certainly a lot of new investment as well.

Developing all of that will come with some real technical and market risk, and there are still quite a few questions that need to be answered. FlyZero Projects didn't get all the answers and there are still some challenges around climate science that we need to understand, but I think the opportunity is huge and really exciting.

"the biggest transformation of the aerospace sector since the jet age"

Three Key Building Blocks to Tackle Innovation at Scale

For me, the key to enabling innovation is firstly to have an idea of the purpose or the strategic objective that your organization is seeking to achieve and which the innovation is going to enable. That's the starting point. And then with that purpose in place, the most innovative organizations are really those that have a culture of questioning and challenging, as well as of networking and drawing on a wide range of ideas from a wide range of sources and of collaborating both internally and externally. Then I think the other key ingredient is diversity, both cognitive and demographic diversity, which is really important. FlyZero demonstrated some of that and that's the approach that we will try to take within the ATI as we're also a relatively small organization. We're able to be quite agile, we're able to be open to the adoption of new ideas, and we definitely have that culture of challenging and questioning, and of collaborating across our team internally but also with the outside world. Those are sort of some of the key building blocks for me.

A Place for Battery Electric Aircraft

The team within FlyZero considered a number of different fuels and power sources and if you're looking at a battery electric, there are challenges when it comes to the range with an aircraft. There's absolutely a place for battery electric aircraft, right down at the sort of smaller subregional end of the market, but also for electric aircraft with hydrogen-powered fuel cells. They're appropriate for smaller, lower-range aircraft, but with a large commercial aircraft, the size of the battery would mean that you'd never get it off the ground. We do see a place for it, but probably not at the longer-range end of the commercial aerospace market. If you look at our technology strategy which we published in April, it's got a number of road maps. 

The Concept of the ATI Hub

When thinking through the concept of the ATI Hub, which aims to catalyze innovation across the sector, we took a user-centric approach. We really wanted to get out there and interview organizations of all sizes to ask about what their needs were and the role that we could play in helping to meet them. And that approach was really invaluable. 

  • We found that new entrants to aerospace wanted access to sector insights, and they wanted to understand the aerospace ecosystem, they wanted access to an industry network. And they also wanted technology validation, as well as guidance on investments and funding.
  • And then some of the more established industry players said that they would value independent insight which would give them the confidence to invest in innovation, and they also wanted visibility of innovative startups to collaborate with, and they wanted to develop their own innovation cultures and new ways of working.
  • And then there were a number of others we spoke to so investors, regulators and others, who were interested more in foresight of future innovations and sector trends as well as connections to startups and other innovators, and showcases of some of the leaders in sustainable aviation.

So the ATI Hub aims to address really all of those points. And we wanted all of that to be free and open access, so it is. We're always also open to partnering with others and other organizations to deliver some of those hub activities. We're going to leverage those partnerships where we can.

The Challenges with the Overall Aviation Ecosystem

Obviously, these technologies need to be developed, right? So there's that. But I think the really big challenge at the moment is that the sector will need to go through such a big transformation to get to net zero. It's really dependent on progress within a number of other areas in the overall aviation ecosystem. For example, the aerospace companies aren't going to develop hydrogen-powered aircraft unless it's clear that the airlines are going to buy them. And the airlines won't buy them unless it's clear that the airports have the infrastructure to refuel the aircraft. And then investors aren't going to invest unless it's clear that the market's going to materialize. And it's that investment that's needed, that's going to unlock all of this in the first place. So we really need to be thinking about how the whole value chain can be incentivized to go through that transformation in lockstep.

The Investment Landscape

How can we make it attractive to airlines to invest in the new technologies and how can we do so in a way that doesn't make it more expensive to get on a flight? And then what sort of investor is going to be interested in aerospace? Although the growth opportunity is significant, the sector is relatively capital-intensive and the payback periods are long. 

So again, Elon if you're listening, maybe this is one for you.

We've published a report with PWC just last week on this latter topic of the right type of investor and the investment landscape and we'll certainly be putting a lot of thought into addressing all the barriers to innovation because the opportunity is so significant and it's something that we're going to need to do as a sector. We've got to innovate to get there.

Getting to Net Zero

When you think about getting to net zero, there are a number of things that I think we will start to see adopted in aviation. We haven't talked about sustainable aviation fuel (SAF),  which is definitely a part of the answer, which can be effectively used as a drop in fuel for current generations of aircraft. I think that's a really important part of getting to net zero rather than absolute zero if you like. And we'll start to see more and more adoption of that.

But then when you come back to the technologies themselves and the priority technologies that I talked about around liquid hydrogen, I think we'll see real progress in the development of liquid hydrogen technologies for large commercial aircraft and the establishment of the test infrastructure needed to develop them.

We're not going to see an aircraft enter service until probably more like the middle of the 2030s but we will see rapid progress in the development of those battery-powered sub-regional aircraft that you mentioned earlier, as well as regional aircraft powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And they may even be entering service within the 5 to 10-year horizon, in some cases.

Aerospace Companies Working in Different Ways

But I think the other exciting thing that we will see in aerospace is aerospace companies working in new and different ways. Whether it's leveraging some of the emerging industry 4.0 technologies and development approaches to bring down development costs and timelines or adopting new or different innovation approaches, I think that will really help to unlock some of the technology innovations themselves that are needed to get to net zero 2050. I think we've got a pretty exciting 5 to 10 years ahead of us.

Final Thoughts

HeroX is excited to have this relationship with ATI and is excited to follow along with everything that the future holds for Harry and the ATI team. Perhaps there's a prize challenge in the future ;) With many industries being big contributors to pollution and carbon emissions - it's really important for us to do everything we can to reduce that. This episode leaves us with the hope that we are well on the way to making that happen. 

#aerospace  #technology  #aviationindustry  #innovation  #netzero  #carbonneutral #elonmusk 


Thank you for checking out Episode #8 of the Innovation Heroes series! 

Let's keep the conversation going! Interested in chatting with Adam on an Innovation Heroes segment or recommending a guest? To join the queue, send an email to Attn: Adam. Include your name, email, and topic of interest (you can also use the HeroX contact form). 

About Harry Malins

As Chief Innovation Officer and a member of the Executive Management Team, Harry is accountable for strategy development and implementation, innovation initiatives and programme delivery. Harry has worked across both industry and consulting in various strategy and general management roles, including at BAE Systems, PwC, QinetiQ, Roland Berger and Rolls-Royce. He holds a BA from Durham University, an MA from Georgetown University and an MBA from ESCP-Europe.

Connect with Harry: LinkedIn

About Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI) 

The ATI creates the technology strategy for UK aerospace, which builds on the UK’s strengths and responds to the challenges faced by the UK civil aerospace sector. It provides a roadmap of the innovation necessary to keep the UK competitive in the global aerospace market, and complements the broader strategy for the sector created by the Aerospace Growth Partnership (AGP). Projects funded through the ATI Programme must align with the strategy.

Connect with ATI: LinkedIn

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🔉 About the Innovation Heroes podcast

The Innovation Heroes series covers all things open innovation, crowdsourcing, and remote work. It’s time to open up the airways, share strategies, engage partners, and leverage the power of crowd intelligence to expedite solutions to the pressing problems facing every level of organization, individuals, and the world. The key word here is OPEN. 

We're bringing our partners in innovation, organizations who have run their own crowdsourcing projects, innovator powerhouses, and remote work legends into the spotlight. There is a global network ready to contribute time, energy and intelligence to just about any challenge that comes their way. All we need to do is provide the opportunity. Thank you for being a part of the solution. Discover the Power of the Crowd

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Adam is your Podcast Host and Possibilities Manager at HeroX, connecting with innovation leaders from around the world to gain insights on how they approach innovation, the technologies they're most excited about, and how these innovations impact their industries.

HeroX is a platform and open marketplace for crowdsourcing innovation that allows anyone, anywhere, to solve everyday business and world challenges using the power of the crowd.

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