How is the Aerospace Industry adapting to the climate challenge?

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It’s hard to have a conversation about the aerospace industry now without coming back to its carbon footprint and the imperative to get from its current 2.5% share of global emissions to net zero by 2050.

It’s a massive challenge, but it’s only one aspect of the aerospace picture. There’s big change across the whole industry, from manufacturing and supply chain through propulsion, to communications, automation and artificial intelligence. At the same time, developments like Urban Air Mobility (UAM) are opening up entire new markets.

Sustainability is a touchstone for all these developments. Sustainability isn’t just about eliminating carbon emissions from air travel itself; it’s about introducing more sustainable materials and processes in manufacturing and maximizing the efficiency of flight operations through innovative communication and artificial intelligence.

In this post I explore some of these innovations; In future posts I’ll go into some of the key changes in more detail. They demonstrate the power of going beyond traditional thinking in supply chain, manufacturing and operations, engaging with partners who share the holistic, sustainability and innovation driven perspective the aerospace industry needs today.

How far off is carbon-neutral air travel?

Much debate around dealing with the climate emergency seems to assume the only way air travel can contribute is by doing a lot less of it.

It’s an understandable assumption - according to a recent Scientific American article, air transport’s 2.5% of global carbon emissions in 2019 could treble by 2050.

Yet it doesn’t take account of the fundamental role both passenger and cargo air transport plays in the global economy, and the potential of innovations in propulsion systems for it to continue to fulfil that role while reducing emissions to zero.

Viable alternatives to fossil fuel, from hydrogen to sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) to hybrid and full electric powertrains, are in various stages of development. For smaller aircraft electric power seems closest to widespread adoption, with hybrid and pure electric aircraft already in-flight testing and a rapidly emerging Urban Air Mobility market, which I discuss later.

Batteries and airframes need to be much lighter before long-haul electric powered flight becomes a reality. However, as the same Scientific American article points out, roughly half of all flights worldwide are less than 800 kilometers, which is expected to be within the range of electric aircraft by 2025. Like their automobile counterparts, electric aircraft are also much quieter and cheaper to maintain.

So, while we may not be boarding a battery-powered flight from New York to Sydney anytime soon, electric aircraft are set to start playing a part in reducing aviation’s carbon footprint in the near future.

New materials and manufacturing methods drive sustainability and reduce costs

Burning jet fuel is air transport’s most visible contribution to climate change, so it’s not surprising it gets most focus when it comes to discussing aerospace and the environment.

Yet the materials and methods used to manufacture and maintain aircraft have their own significant environmental impact, and there is plenty of work going on to deliver sustainability across the whole aerospace industry.

Moving from metal to composites means lighter aircraft with a much lower environmental impact. Approximately half of every Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 airliner is made from composites.

Using composites along with new adhesives and other materials transforms supply chains and manufacturing, delivering lighter, more efficient, easier to maintain aircraft that utilize sustainable raw materials and processes.

Whether it’s additive manufacturing using 3D printing, using resin infusion and thermoplastic composites to remove the need for inefficient expensive and environmentally damaging autoclaves, or manufacturing interior panels from recyclable or recycled material, there is innovation going on across the whole aerospace industry to deliver step improvements in efficiency and sustainability.

Urban Air Mobility - A new frontier for sustainable commercial aerospace

So far, I’ve talked about innovations making existing commercial aerospace applications more sustainable.

Urban Air Mobility (UAM) is an entirely new field for commercial aerospace with sustainability and environmental improvement at its heart.

Drone delivery services are already a reality, and the natural extension from carrying goods to carrying people is not far behind.

Backed by the involvement of major automotive and traditional aerospace players, electric-powered air taxis are set to become a reality within a few years. Viable airborne mobility for intra and inter-city journeys has potential to reduce our dependency on road infrastructure, with all its environmental impacts, from tarmacking over woodland to light pollution from streetlights.

An innovative route to sustainable aviation

The future of the aerospace industry is about much more than getting to carbon neutrality by 2050. Innovation permeates the whole field, from materials production, through manufacturing and maintenance methods, to propulsion, communications and entire new applications of aerospace knowhow like flying taxis. Sustainability is at the heart of all this innovation.

By partnering with expert suppliers like Henkel, manufacturers can harness the power of this innovation to improve their output and drive sustainability. Through such a supplier, manufacturers have access to industry experts who can help them reduce product weight, increase durability, and enhance reliability.

To learn more about innovations and the value of a partner like Henkel, feel free to reach out on LinkedIn or visit us.

About the author

Ruairi O’Kane

Head Global Strategy Aviation, Space & Rail


Ruairi has been serving the chemical industry for more than 15 years. He is a technology-focused market strategist who has developed adhesives, advanced materials and polymer solutions for the aerospace, semiconductor and industrial sectors

He is currently the Global Strategy Head for the Aviation, Space & Rail group at Henkel Adhesive Technologies. He joined Henkel in 2006 after completing his degree in chemistry in Trinity College Dublin and PhD in Metal Organic Chemical Vapour Deposition at the University of Liverpool. Ruairi has also completed a BSc in Technology Management.

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