Grazia Vittadini

Sustainable aviation fuels, hydrogen and electricity will have a role to play in reaching net zero carbon emission targets by 2050, according to Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology and Strategy Officer at Rolls-Royce.

Grazia, you are both the Chief Technology Officer as well as the Chief Strategy Officer at Rolls-Royce. Which role is more critical to master the fundamental industrial transformation ahead?

It is crucial to combine both perspectives, especially in a global power business like Rolls-Royce, with activities in aerospace, defence and power systems. Strategy is all about the “why”, technology is about the “how”. Technology underpins strategy by helping define the range of its possibilities. At the same time, it gives a good idea of how strategy, once defined, is to be implemented.

Coming out of the pandemic: why should people resume flying like they did before?

Because aviation is a force for good. Aircraft connect people, families, cultures and economies across the globe. At higher speeds and over wider distances than any other means of transport. In most cases, flying is the only option. If you want to travel from Europe to the US, you normally wouldn´t ask yourself: “should I fly 10 hours or take a boat for a 10-day journey?” The only choice is: “take a plane or stay home”. This is not only true for individuals but also for our economy at large.

Why is that?

Because, measured by value, more than a third of global trade is carried by air. This applies to high-value and urgent goods – such as medical and sanitary supplies or spare parts for our high-tech industries. Same goes for many everyday products. The smartphone you’re holding right now was most probably imported from overseas by plane. All this means that without aviation, our society and economy would look entirely different.

Sounds like a solid business case. Why should the aerospace industry change then and take on the huge burden of transforming itself?

Well, just look at the facts and figures: the world population is constantly growing, with an evolving global middle class, and demand for air travel is doubling every 15 to 20 years. By the beginning of the next decade, we could see some six billion people flying every year. We all agree that preserving our climate and environment is the indispensable foundation upon which to build the future of aviation, both ecologically and economically. Already today, the countries that have committed to a net zero goal by 2050 account for 70% of global gross domestic product (GDP).

For companies, this means that it will become increasingly costly to be part of the problem and increasingly profitable to be part of the solution. This is where the societal and environmental imperative turns into one of the greatest technological and commercial opportunities of our times. At Rolls-Royce we are determined to pivot our research and development (R&D) expenditure towards more low carbon and net zero technologies from around 50% to at least 75% by 2025, not only as responsible corporate citizens but also as a profit-oriented company.

"Hydrogen will undoubtedly play a key role in global energy decarbonisation, and the production of green hydrogen needs to be significantly increased"

Let´s move on to the “how” then. How do you want to make Rolls-Royce´s product portfolio compatible with net zero by 2050?

At Rolls-Royce we are set on leading the transition to net zero by 2050 and we have defined clear steps on this journey. We laid this out in June last year with our Net Zero report. First, we are committed to making a step change in efficiency of our gas turbines. Second, we champion sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) demonstration and adoption. And third, we are developing third generation technologies.

How does Rolls-Royce aim to improve fuel efficiency?

By bringing current engines to the next level, for instance by developing our UltraFan demonstrator and its portfolio of technologies, to increase efficiency while reducing emissions. UltraFan technologies offer a step change, saving 25% fuel compared to the first generation of Rolls-Royce Trent engines. Critical to that is the power gearbox, which has a planetary design and can transmit more power than an entire grid of Formula 1 cars when running at maximum power.

It is designed to allow the turbine at the rear of the engine to run at a very high speed while the fan at the front runs at a lower speed. This makes the engine very efficient and will help improve the economics of a transition to more sustainable fuels, which are likely to be more expensive in the short term than traditional jet fuel.

What makes SAF so important and what are Rolls-Royce's goals in this field?

SAF, if made from waste or synthetically, is the most immediate solution to dramatically reduce lifecycle emissions by around 80%, which is huge. Today, engines are still only certified to fly with a fuel blend containing a maximum of 50% SAF. To reap the full potential, we must increase this ratio as soon as possible. At Rolls-Royce, we have set ourselves the goal of making all our commercial aero engines compatible to fly with 100% SAF by next year.

Is there a catch?

Producing SAF is quite energy consuming, and SAF will only be “sustainable” if produced using low carbon energies. Power generation and power use must always go hand in hand. At Rolls-Royce with our `Small Modular Reactors´, we offer a solution for carbon dioxide (CO2)-free and reliable power which can play a role in solving this issue. The challenges in supplying truly sustainable fuels remain gigantic with scaling production and lowering cost.

Even though politicians and fuel providers are working on this, the amount of available SAF will remain limited for the foreseeable future. As a result, we must focus its use on the field where it has most impact. Long-haul flights make up only 25% of global air traffic but account for 75% of its emissions. That´s the real use case for SAF.

For shorter routes, many are counting on hydrogen as an alternative fuel. What is your view on this?

Despite the enormous technical and infrastructural challenges associated with bringing hydrogen to mainstream aviation, it does offer the promise of commercial and environmental benefits. While SAF offers the most potential in decarbonising aviation and achieving net-zero carbon in the nearer term, from a fundamental perspective hydrogen not only appears feasible as a fuel for aviation but may ultimately be suitable for both medium- and long-haul markets.

Hydrogen will undoubtedly play a key role in global energy decarbonisation, and the production of green hydrogen needs to be significantly increased. At Rolls-Royce we are researching key hydrogen technologies as part of the broader portfolio which will enable us deliver to our 2050 commitments.

What does Rolls-Royce have to offer in the field of electric propulsion?

Rolls-Royce is leading the way in offering all-electric and hybrid-electric power and propulsion systems for the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) market, which includes small propeller aircraft, regional air mobility and urban air mobility. We have set up a business unit in Rolls-Royce to focus on this, aiming at delivering power and propulsion products for aerospace applications by investing in a series of technology building blocks, ranging from electrical propulsion units to advanced energy storage systems, augmenting generators and electrical power distribution systems, to offer end-to-end battery electric and hybrid electric systems solutions.

Where do you stand in this electrifying journey?

Our focus on differentiated technology has provided a competitive advantage we have been able to exploit. In Urban Air Mobility, our electric propulsion unit has been selected by Vertical Aerospace for its all-electric VX4 aircraft, we have been selected as the propulsion system design partner by EVE, Embraer’s urban air mobility spin-out, and we are progressing detailed discussions with other possible customers. In Regional Air Mobility, Wideroe, the Norwegian regional airline, will be the launch customer for the P-Volt battery-electric system for a nine-seat fixed wing aircraft. Furthermore, we have been working alongside Tecnam and Rotax, to complete the flight-testing of a hybrid-electric aircraft, powered by a parallel-hybrid propulsion system: the H3PS (High Power High Scalability Aircraft Hybrid Powertrain) demonstrator introduces advanced technology for a smaller power class and is scalable to larger aircraft.

So to summarise, we have demonstrated the pace of electrical technology acceleration and have exciting applications for AAM. Across these markets, we anticipate introducing our products into service by the middle of the decade.

"We have demonstrated the pace of electrical technology acceleration and have exciting applications for AAM"

What other flight-demonstrator programmes to prove electrical technology have you worked on?

I do have to mention our "Spirit of Innovation" here! It’s the world´s fastest all-electric aircraft, and flies twice as fast as its closest competitor.

Yet, ultimately it is of course not about setting records but rather about achieving tangible results in driving sustainability and maturing technologies for the Advanced Air Mobility market. The "Spirit of Innovation" allowed us to leverage unrivalled aerospace and electrical engineering expertise, drawing on the finest talent across various sectors, such as Formula E auto-racing and high-powered battery development. Every challenge we overcame, every breakthrough we made has been shared with a global and integrated team, giving knowledge and capability a potential real-world application. This is how we make all-electric flight a reality!

What role can all-electric flying play in making aviation climate neutral by 2050?

Driving innovation is about seeing the big picture. By 2050, 70% of the world populations will live in cities. To achieve carbon neutrality, we will need to tackle the growing traffic density in and between cities and on shorter commuter routes. On Advanced Air Mobility platforms, all-electric propulsion systems will be an important part of the solution, being clean, quiet and efficient. All-electric flying is CO2 emission free!

At Rolls-Royce we are determined to champion these developments and aim to become the leading supplier for complete electric and hybrid-electric power and propulsion systems across the whole Advanced Air Mobility market.

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