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The global aerospace sector is strong, with recovery in international travel leading to strong orders for aircraft and associated components. The UK’s aerospace sector is one of the largest in the world, and its value added grew by almost 9% per year between 2010 and 2016 (according to the Aerospace Technology Institute, ATI). However, the industry is under increasing pressure to reduce the environmental impact of air travel, and electric and hybrid propulsions systems is one of the options being explored to address this.

At present, electric systems on aircraft are limited to functions such as cabin pressurisation, braking and de-icing, but the industry is looking increasingly at how to implement electric and hybrid propulsion systems, particularly for short-range applications. However, there is work to do to for the industry to develop the tools and understanding needed to make these potentially disruptive, but essential changes.

This challenge is something WMG at the University of Warwick is exploring. WMG works with UK manufacturing companies and their supply chains to de-risk innovation, helping them to develop new technologies.

Their success in developing electrification solutions in the automotive sector has seen the team take on roles as the Electrical Energy Storage Spoke of the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) and as a founding partner in the development of the new Faraday Institution, the UK’s institute for electrochemical energy storage science and technology. The team are now looking at how they can transfer their understanding and skills in automotive to other sectors, such as aerospace.

Safety is a key challenge for electrification in aerospace. Aeroplanes have to operate at extremes of temperature, and need a management system that can distribute high-voltages safely at 30,000 feet while ensuring that all critical systems remain online.

A further difficulty for the sector is the lack of common standards and regulatory infrastructure around electric systems and propulsion. This is holding back further research and development in this area.

What can the aerospace sector learn from the lessons of automotive? Certainly, there are significant differences between these two industries - volume, for one. The economies of scale found in automotive battery manufacture won’t apply to the relatively low volumes of high-power batteries needed for aerospace.

Not only that, but there is no UK supply chain for low-volume battery manufacture, and the batteries being produced for automotive applications focus on volumetric energy density, whereas aerospace is likely to need a gravimetric power density focus.

However, one area where the aerospace could learn from automotive, is by emulating the approach the auto industry took to make a compelling case to Government. The APC along with academic institutions and innovation councils, worked together to develop a technology roadmap and used it to present a vision to Government. This brought about a step change in the Government’s approach to the battery supply chain, which could lay the foundations for aerospace.

Once CO2 benefits are seen from other sectors, aerospace will feel the public pressure to find solutions, but the industry must anticipate this and begin to search for solutions now. If they can agree a strategic vision that articulates the economic and environmental benefits of electrification to Government and regulatory bodies, then the UK aero industry will be in a good position to take advantage of these opportunities.

If you would like to support such an initiative please contact WMG at: wmgbusiness@warwick.ac.uk

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