SAS’ electrifying future awaits

From engaging in research projects on electric planes to seeking a better supply of biofuel, the aim to reduce the climate impact of the aviation industry and making it more environmentally friendly has never been higher on the agenda.

The era of electric planes is no longer a question of “if”, but rather “when and what shape will it take?”

SAS is actively engaged at both ends of the spectrum of realizing the development, with research and production being backed in technologies that will make electric-powered flying both possible and financially viable.

Before that, though, several steps are either already in place or on the way, as the need to reduce CO2  -emissions increases.

“The first step for us has been to add new, more fuel-efficient aircraft to the fleet – the Airbus A320 and A350. It’s pleasing that we’re using less and less fuel per flight when we introduce new technology,” says Lars Andersen Resare, Head of Environment & CSR at SAS.

Airbus has unveiled a bird-like conceptual airliner design with the goal of motivating the next generation of aeronautical engineers.

The next step is to think beyond the current fossil fuel and work on increasing the supply of biofuel, although ultimately, even that is likely to act as a bridge between fossil fuel and electric or hybrid-electric planes on shorter routes in the beginning, he adds.

SAS has been quick to react to emerging technology and has already signed a research agreement with -Airbus, as well as backing other smaller-scale projects.

“We want to properly future-proof ourselves, so we’re looking at interesting initiatives, making agreements with partners and investigating ways to contribute with our knowledge and expertise,” says Andersen Resare.

”The consumers are curious to see what the next generation of aircraft may look like”

The first electric planes we’ll see in the air will be small and will only cover short distances, but vitally, for the likes of SAS, they will serve as a development platform for new technologies. If successfully scaled up, it will mean that it’s possible that in the 2030s we’ll see a 100-seat passenger plane that’s a hybrid electric aircraft – something that aligns with SAS’ long term ambitions.

Development at the moment is focused on commercializing aircraft with up to 15 seats in the period 2025–2030 and several projects have already been unveiled.One example is a Swedish, Silicon Valley-based startup that is developing aircraft that initially will be able to cover shorter distances. The plan is to launch small 19-passenger aircraft capable of flying up to 400km.

Electric batteries are only as sustainable as the source of energy in the first place, so wind and solar sources are being looked into.

“We are supporting this project, even though that market isn’t something we’re interested in. The tech behind it will be scalable into larger aircraft though,” Andersen Resare says.

Ultimately, the ambition is larger passenger aircraft, which was the thinking behind this year’s Memorandum of Understanding with Airbus, a longstanding SAS partner. According to the memorandum, the two companies will research and assess the opportunities and challenges regarding airline operations and infrastructure linked to introducing new hybrid-electric aircraft. With an aviation industry goal of cutting CO2 emissions to half of what they were in 2005 by 2050, the development of electric planes is set to be a key factor. And consumers are curious to see what the next generation of aircraft may look like.

“They will likely look different than existing aircraft,” says Glenn Llewellyn, General Manager Electrification at Airbus.

“Perhaps they will have distributed propulsion, meaning several motors instead of the two gas turbines that we see on existing aircraft,” he says.  “Electric motors are much lighter and smaller than gas turbines, so are easier to locate where they provide the most aerodynamic benefit. This also means that we can -potentially reduce in size or eliminate completely the rudder at the rear of the aircraft because we will control the direction using the electric motors instead of the tail.”

And it’s not just how the planes look that will change, according to the Airbus executive. The noise they make and how they are refueled will also be different.

Forestry waste is anticipated to be a viable raw material for future biofuel production in Scandinavia.

“Electric or hybrid-electric aircraft will probably allow us to reduce cabin noise and noise around the aircraft. This will be because either we will have no gas turbine or we will be able to operate it much more flexibly, complementing it with an electrical energy source.”

With so much happening already, there is justifiable excitement, although Andersen Resare points out that the process from the design stage to commercialization can be a long one, especially with as yet uncommercialized technologies.

Whether the first planes in the air will be hybrids or small-scale, short-distance air taxi-like vehicles, the technology is clearly on the way, and the time frame is shorter. The race is well and truly on.

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