British aircraft engine maker Rolls-Royce is “championing” the energy transition and the decarbonisation of aviation, its outgoing chief executive Warren East told AFP on Tuesday at the Farnborough airshow.
This year’s Farnborough spectacle, returning from a four-year absence, is set against the backdrop of air travel’s nascent post-pandemic recovery but as economic turmoil hampers manufacturing.
Yet the airshow’s focus is on decarbonisation and sustainability in a sector often criticised for its impact on the climate, amid Europe’s blistering heatwave with record temperatures in England.
“The big theme is energy transition,” East told AFP in an interview at the company’s airshow chalet.
“This is the number one issue for the sector. We’ve been championing that for some time — and saying it’s absolutely necessary and we embrace that as an opportunity.”
East, 60, is retiring after more than seven years at the helm of the aerospace behemoth, with his tenure marked by historic corruption fines for the group, Trent engine troubles and Brexit.
Rolls, whose products power Airbus and Boeing aircraft, then axed 9,000 jobs and offloaded assets in a drastic restructuring after the Covid pandemic grounded jets and sparked a collapse air traffic.
East then guided it back to profit in 2021 from Covid-driven losses after slashing costs.
The titan, based in the city of Derby in central England, is now reaping the benefits of aviation’s post-Covid recovery, defence growth, a record power systems order book — and a long-standing focus on sustainability.
“I’m quite pleased with my time at Rolls-Royce,” added East, who took the reins in July 2015.
“We’ve really sort of modernised Rolls Royce in terms of culture.
“We’ve put in place a lot of efficiency and productivity improvements, which then crystallised during the Covid pandemic.
“And that’s created a very firm platform for the future (with) great operational and financial gearing now.”
Aviation accounts for between 2-3 percent of the world’s total damaging carbon dioxide emissions, according to industry estimates.
Airlines and manufacturers alike have meanwhile committed to achieving net zero emissions — or carbon neutrality — by 2050.
Yet global air traffic is forecast to more than double by that point.
Rolls-Royce, which specialises in engines for long-haul aircraft, military jets and helicopters, is as a result ramping up its research into a wide range of technologies including electric and hydrogen power.
At the first Farnborough airshow since Covid, Rolls-Royce has announced a partnership, named H2ZERO, with British low-cost carrier Easyjet to test cleaner hydrogen engine combustion technology.
Rolls also signed a deal with South Korea’s Hyundai to explore all-electric propulsion and hydrogen fuel cell technology for flying taxis of the future.
The company in addition unveiled a new research programme on hydrogen propulsion technology that emits no carbon dioxide.
Rolls is meanwhile working to develop a fuel-efficient future engine named UltraFan, which emits less damaging pollutants.
UltraFan aims for 25 percent fuel savings compared with traditional long-haul engine.
“We are a group that is very focused on power and we do power across multiple sectors and one of the sectors in which we obviously have decades of experience in is aviation and aerospace,” said East.
The CEO cautioned however that it would take “decades” before hydrogen was deployed in aircraft engines.
The global aerospace industry would meanwhile need to harness technology such as sustainable aviation fuels derived from biomass, in order to curb its reliance on high-polluting kerosene.
SAF is however between three and four times more expensive than normal jet fuel.
“I think as we go forward — maybe we’ll get to hydrogen in a gas turbine — but we’re not going to get there for at least a couple of decades,” East told AFP.
“There is a huge amount of work to do to make that practical, safe and economic and we need to have some transition technologies in the meantime and that’s why we talk about sustainable aviation fuel.”
He added: “Essentially, we’re just saying instead of kerosene we’ve got batteries, hydrogen, and synthetic kerosene.”