It’s no secret that the aviation industry contributes to CO2 emissions. So there is pressure on aviation business leaders to make giant leaps in climate action to ensure the future of flying can be more sustainable. Technological advancement is a key element of that decarbonisation – including new, climate-first designs of engines.
Riccardo Procchi is the CEO of Avio Aero, an aviation company with more than 5,000 employees in Italy, Poland and the Czech Republic, who joined the organization in 2013 to lead the team’s transformation as it was acquired by GE. The company develops next-generation propulsion systems for commercial and military aviation, working with leading universities and research centers as it focuses investment on research and development for the future of the aviation industry.
Why: Aviation is an important topic in a world dealing with climate change – how can aviation become a climate-first industry?
a: We believe aviation and the ability to travel is essential because the world works better when it flies. Everyone in the world has the 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 manufacturers. We take seriously our responsibility to help lead the aviation industry’s efforts to decarbonize commercial flying. Making air travel more sustainable is one of the biggest challenges faced by the industry, and the pandemic has sharpened the industry’s focus on reducing our environmental impact.
Today’s aircraft engines consume 40 percent less fuel than engines manufactured in the 1970s as a result of technology introduced by GE for commercial aircraft. Looking ahead, airlines and equipment manufacturers for aircraft and engines have strengthened commitments to reduce carbon emissions from commercial flying, announcing new targets to be net-zero by 2050. Recently at the 41st General Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), member countries adopted a common goal, providing international governmental support. For us, these announcements mean more joint efforts and investments.
Carbon emissions reductions will come from three areas: fleet renewal and technological breakthroughs on aircraft and engines, alternative low-carbon fuels, and better air traffic management. Alternative energy sources are prominent. Commercial aviation will not reach its collective goals of reducing carbon emissions without the widespread acceptance and availability of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), which have lower lifecycle carbon emissions than petroleum-based jet fuels.
Q: What is GE doing to work towards a more sustainable future for aviation?
a: We will have the technologies ready to meet the net-zero ambition of the industry. To that end, Avio Aero and other GE Aerospace European operations are collaborating with the European Commission’s Clean Aviation Joint Venture to develop and advance technologies for hydrogen-powered, hybrid electric and ultra-efficient aircraft.
We are maturing a number of technologies to achieve at least 20 percent better fuel efficiency and 20 percent lower CO2 emissions than our most efficient engines today. This includes the development of new advanced engine architectures, such as open fans, compact engine core designs and hybrid electric propulsion systems. These engine technologies are being developed to make them fuel flexible with SAF and Hydrogen.
We’ll see open fan, hybrid electric and hydrogen technologies undergo ground and flight tests this decade. What we learn may lead to the development of new engine products for entry into service in the mid-2030s.
Increasing acceptance and availability of SAFs is also important to reach net-zero. All GE engines today can operate on approved SAF blends.
Why: What does innovation in aircraft engines look like today?
a: The next generation of propulsion systems being developed by GE could provide a step-change in emissions reductions. Our goal is to achieve more than 20 percent better fuel efficiency in future single-aisle commercial aircraft than the current state-of-the-art – the single largest improvement our company has ever made.
The open fan engine design is critical to achieving our 20 percent target and contributes to the development of open fan architecture under Europe’s Clean Aviation Program in collaboration with Avio Aero Safran aircraft engines. We also contributed to Europe’s Clean Sky 2 program, exploring several architectures for hybrid electrics.
Additionally, our new European designed and developed Catalytic Engine is the first turboprop in aviation history built 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 is making GE and engine technology an important part of today’s climate innovation conversation?
a: Previous 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 cost 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 exactly what is needed to reach our net-zero ambitions.
The difference from the first to the second is that our company has developed advanced technologies in both our engine design as well as our design tools, which have enabled our engineers to push the cutting edge beyond what was previously thought possible. ,
Q: What is the European reference? How does the work you do now and in the future affect EU citizens?
a: Avio Aero and GE have major operations across Europe, including the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom, focused on one of the biggest challenges facing the aviation industry: decarbonisation. And we have the ambition to deliver.
We are collaborating with 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 promoting alternative fuel production and supply. Through the Clean Aviation Joint Undertaking, we are developing advanced engine technologies for the aircraft of the future. Additionally, Avio Aero joined the Alliance for Zero-Emission Aviation, supporting the introduction of new technologies with zero emissions in flight.
Why: What gives you hope and optimism in terms of taking climate action?
A: There has never been a more exciting time to be an engineer in the aviation industry. The great challenges we face, and disruptive technologies like hybrid electric propulsion, are enabling a better, more efficient future of flight.
Learn more about what GE Aerospace is doing for the future of flight Here,