Expert team developing simulator to accelerate the path to net-zero flight


Cambridge University has announced the launch of the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA), an international group of experts in aerospace, economics, policy, and climate science, who are building an interactive evidence-based simulator that allows you to explore scenarios for achieving net-zero flight.

The simulator will capture the whole aviation sector, from sources of renewable electricity and raw materials, to the production and transport of fuel, and the introduction of new aircraft technologies and operations. Leaders in industry and government will gain an understanding of the potential for change and the trade-offs between decisions. The hope is that the simulator will guide innovation, investment, and policy action, as well as providing wider educational benefits to the public.

It was inspired by the work of the renowned Cambridge academic Professor Sir David MacKay. MacKay’s ground-breaking work on decarbonising the UK energy system remains the bedrock of the BEIS MacKay Carbon Calculator, which allows the user to explore pathways to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the AIA seeks to combine the use of simple units and a user-friendly interface with the technical rigour required to meet the tight constraints of air travel.

Through an intuitive interface, the user will be able to simulate future scenarios to 2050 and calculate the resource requirements, such as renewable electricity and land use, the climate impact, both CO2 and non-CO2, and the cost of flying. Options in the simulator include the type of energy used, such as hydrogen, batteries, and a range of sustainable aviation fuels, the type of aircraft and aircraft technologies, the way in which aircraft are operated, and the value judgments made by the public and government.

The AIA is led by Cambridge University’s Whittle Laboratory and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), and includes a team of multidisciplinary experts from across the University together with the Air Transportation Systems Lab at University College London, and the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne. The AIA is in partnership with HRH The Prince of Wales’s Sustainable Markets Initiative, The World Economic Forum, Cambridge Zero, MathWorks, and SATAVIA, and is supported by industry advisors Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP, Heathrow, and Siemens Energy.

Prof Rob Miller, Director, Whittle Laboratory co-lead of the project said: “Achieving an aviation sector with no climate impact is one of society’s biggest challenges. Solving it will require a complex combination of technology, business, human behaviour, and policy. We have assembled a world class team of academics and industry experts to take on this challenge.”

Clare Shine, Director, University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) said: “International travel helps people and societies connect. To retain this opportunity for future generations, we must urgently address aviation’s environmental impact as part of systemic decarbonisation of the economy. This calls for imaginative and inclusive innovation, which is why the Aviation Impact Accelerator brings together insight from industry, policy, and civil society.”

John Holland-Kaye, CEO, Heathrow Airport said: “The Aviation Impact Accelerator will play a vital role in highlighting the action required to achieve net zero aviation and support Heathrow to ensure 2019 is our year of ‘peak carbon’. The first priority is accelerated use of sustainable aviation fuel. Government can act to unlock SAF through a mandate stimulating supply, plus incentives to drive demand. The prize is a new British growth industry and UK leadership in the race to net zero.”

Alan Newby, Director, Aerospace Technology & Future Programmes, Rolls-Royce said: “Collaboration across industry and academia is vital to the success of a more sustainable future for aviation as we move towards reaching the ambitious decarbonisation targets that have been set for the sector. Initiatives such as AIA allow us to work together to increase the pace at which we can deliver the insights and analysis that will drive the technology needed to support the race to net zero. Rolls-Royce is fully focused on contributing to the success of this important project.”

Dr Adam Durant, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, SATAVIA said: “SATAVIA’s collaboration with the Aviation Impact Accelerator will analyse aviation’s non-CO2 climate impacts over the full range of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) types. By combining our world-leading contrail modelling with AIA’s ground-breaking whole-systems view of SAF and aviation’s climate impact, we will generate timely insight to inform the industry’s sustainability strategy.”

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