Department of Engineering / News / Cambridge leads multidisciplinary team in development of a simulator to accelerate the path to net zero flight

Department of Engineering

Cambridge leads multidisciplinary team in development of a simulator to accelerate the path to net zero flight

Cambridge leads multidisciplinary team in development of a simulator to accelerate the path to net zero flight

The University of Cambridge has today (25 August) announced the launch of the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA) – an international group of experts in aerospace, economics, policy, and climate science, who are developing an interactive evidence-based simulator that explores scenarios for achieving net zero flight. 

Led by the Department’s Whittle Laboratory and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), the AIA includes a team of multidisciplinary experts from across the University, including Engineering Department academics from Hopkinson Laboratory and the Engineering Design Centre, 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. It will be launched officially at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November 2021.

The simulator will capture the whole aviation sector, from the 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.

Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle Laboratory and 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.”

The simulator was conceived in early 2020 at a roundtable hosted by HRH The Prince of Wales and attended by senior industry leaders, government and academia. 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. 

Brian Yutko, Chief Engineer for Sustainability and Future Mobility at Boeing, said: “The Boeing team is excited to engage collaboratively in the AIA to evaluate potential pathways to a net zero aviation sector. By working across academia and industry, we can take a truly systems-level approach to assessing the life-cycle impacts of aviation from energy source all the way to passenger journeys. This work will inform how we can take further actions to contribute to the UK government 2050 net zero goal and ensure aerospace remains safe and sustainable.”

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 simulator will take a whole system approach, from the source of the electricity, to the methods of fuel production and transport, to the passenger journey.

Clare Shine, Director of 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 AIA brings together insight from industry, policy, and civil society.”

Dr Emily Shuckburgh OBE, Director of Cambridge Zero, said: “The transition to a zero-carbon future requires a bold response to climate change. The AIA is such a bold response, bringing together multidisciplinary expertise to inform decision making and enable meaningful change.”

Professor Andreas Schafer, Air Transport Systems Laboratory, University College London, said: “The Air Transportation Systems Lab at UCL is excited to be part of a leading-edge consortium that explores the technological, economic, environmental and societal trade-offs associated with a deep decarbonisation of the global aviation industry.”

John Holland-Kaye, CEO, Heathrow Airport, said: "The AIA 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 (SAF). 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 AIA will analyse aviation's non-CO₂ climate impacts over the full range of 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.”

Steve Scrimshaw, Vice President, Siemens Energy UK&I, said: “We are very pleased to be involved in this project. The interactive whole systems approach taken by the AIA offers an exciting opportunity to provide insights, and to play out scenarios, allowing us to accelerate ways of unlocking change in this hard to decarbonise sector.”

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