LONDON — Britain’s Royal Air Force has set a goal of becoming the first military service in the world to register and certify a zero-carbon aircraft.
The service has already tapped industry for exploitable technology to start replacing a fleet of RAF light training aircraft. If the program goes as planned, Britain could have their first zero-carbon platform flying by around 2027, according to a market exploration document released in July by the government’s Defence and Security Accelerator organization.
“The decision has been taken to ensure that the next generation aircraft will produce zero carbon emissions at the point of use. This target must be achieved through more environmentally sympathetic aircraft using a sustainable fuel source such as electric or hydrogen; the goal is to achieve the first military registered and certified zero-carbon aircraft in the world,” the DASA document read. “An entry into service date of circa 2027 is anticipated.”
However, Armed Forces Minister James Heappey was more vague about a possible in-service date when he responded to questions about the project in Parliament on July 21. “It is expected that the RAF will have its first zero-emission aircraft operational by the end of this decade,” he told lawmakers.
The new aircraft is to replace 90 piston-powered Grob 115 aircraft, colloquially known as Tutor T1 planes, currently providing elementary flight training for the British military.
The aircraft project, led by the RAF’s Rapid Capabilities Office, will feed into a wider program known as Project Telum — an end-to-end solution aimed at modernizing elementary flight training, including the use of synthetic and virtual training.
The competition for Project Telum is slated to start in 2023, but Heappey said the date remains unconfirmed.
The original intention had been to replace the Tutor T1 planes with another conventionally powered aircraft, but the change in thinking is being driven by a much wider RAF effort toward achieving zero-carbon by 2040, 10 years ahead of the government’s national policy of being carbon neutral by 2050.
Chief of the Air Staff Air Marshal Mike Wigston said in a July 14 speech to the Global Air Chiefs’ Conference in London that he had set the net-zero goal’s deadline of 2040 before it was imposed on him by the government. “Everything I see and hear tells me that [the government’s] 2050 date will come forward,” he said.
In an article in a Royal Air Forces Association magazine earlier this year, Air Marshal Andy Turner, the service’s deputy commander for capability, hinted at the possibility of achieving emission-reduction goals sooner than 2040, saying the force would like to do it by “2030 if we can.”
The RAF is not looking to tackle the challenges of achieving zero emissions in isolation, though. Wigston wrote to global air force chiefs in June advocating for a climate convention later this year to coordinate, cohere and catalyze change across the world’s air forces. As of press time, there were no concrete plans for such a climate convention.
An emissions-free trainer by 2027 is an ambitious target, but it would be an eye-catching achievement for RAF sustainability, not least because the service is one of the biggest government offenders when it comes to environmentally unfriendly emissions.
Industry responses to DASA — created by the Defence Ministry to find and help fund exploitable innovations in the defense and security sectors — are due by Aug. 17. That could be followed by an industry day for potential technology suppliers in September.
In its market-testing document, DASA said it was aware of multiple initiatives in the development of unconventionally fueled platforms in the general aviation sector, but that several of the requirements for the military were quite specific and potentially unique.
Included in the DASA list of essentials for an elementary trainer was a requirement for 90 minutes of endurance and a 20-minute turnaround.
An electric or hydrogen-powered trainer would be just the tip of the iceberg, as a rapidly increasing number of initiatives with the ministry and armed services, particularly the Royal Air Force, are progressing under carbon-neutral goals laid out in the government’s recently published “Climate Change and Sustainability Strategy Approach” road map.
Specifically, the Rapid Capabilities Office is leading work on synthetic fuels to reduce RAF emissions. Wigston told the air chiefs conference that the effort “includes exciting advances in waste-to-fuel technology through to electrofuels.”
“These new approaches are environmentally friendly and sustainable. They are also secure in their supply, and the chemically purer fuel we are producing indicates cleaner engines that results in lower maintenance; longer equipment life; and lower noise, heat and visual signatures, such as contrails,” he said.
The Royal Air Force’s sustainability efforts have already shown positive results. In 2019, for example, F-35 base RAF Marham installed an anaerobic digester that produced 95 percent of the base’s energy needs, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 14,000 ton per year and saving nearly £300,000 (U.S. $413,640) annually in energy bills.
Turner also noted potential energy-saving ideas during the RAF Association interview, from recycling hydrocarbons using microbes to extending the reach of synthetic training into new areas of activity.
But it’s the replacement of conventional fuel with cleaner, sustainable methods of powering the aircraft that has generated the most interest as the RAF heads toward the extensive use of sustainable aircraft fuels, or SAF. Last September saw the defense standard for aviation fuel changed to allow a 50 percent blend of SAF with hydrocarbons. A move to 100 percent use of SAF for some types of RAF aircraft is now on the cards, offering potentially significant gains in emission reductions.
During a panel session at the Farnborough Connect event in mid-July, Turner told participants the RAF hopes to “fly a 100 percent SAF-powered aircraft this side of Christmas, and move that fleet to 100 percent in about two years’ time.”
Turner didn’t divulge the aircraft type destined to make the initial conversion to synthetic fuel.
An RAF spokesman told Defense News on July 22 that “there are three options running on this timeline. However, for commercial reasons we are not able to offer any detail at this stage.”
Flying the RAF’s current assets with a 50-50 mix is already possible; the main reasons that hasn’t happened are supply limitations and price. Turner said SAF is currently up to four time more expensive than conventional Jet A-1 fuel, and Wigston said there’s a lack of “an assured supply.”
To overcome those roadblocks, the service is looking to invest in a privately held company that produces a novel organic refining capability to generate a more stable and higher calorific fuel than Jet A-1 using apples and lavender.
The RAF spokesman said an investment deal with the unnamed company was in the works, but not completed. He said more information may be available in September.
Andrew Chuter is the United Kingdom correspondent for Defense News.