New Center for Sustainable Aviation: It's not just about reducing carbon emissions.

10/19/2022 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

illustration of an airplane and No CO2Conversations about making aviation more sustainable typically land on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the reliance on fossil fuel resources as top priorities. Phillip Ansell says, although these factors are the foundational underpinning of the sustainable aviation field, the discussion also needs to be much broader than that.

As the director of the new Center for Sustainable Aviation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ansell is taking a holistic approach to the problem. He plans to expand the scope of sustainable aviation by leveraging expertise from a broad range of disciplines in academia, industry, and government.

Phillip Ansell
Phillip Ansell

“I want to make connections between experts, not just in aerospace, but in electrical engineering, agriculture, atmospheric science, political science, biology, chemistry, and other physical and social sciences, because this is not just an environmental or natural resources concern,” he said.

One of Ansell’s first forays into sustainable aviation came in his more focused Center Cryogenic High-Efficiency Electrical Technologies for Aircraft which was funded by NASA in 2019. He said it has been a springboard for this new, broader Center for Sustainable Aviation.

“CHEETA will continue to research extreme sustainability concepts with very aggressive requirements of what the aircraft system and associated technologies do to achieve zero CO2 emissions, zero nitrogen oxide emissions, and zero influence of aviation-induced cloudiness by 2050,” Ansell said. “It sparked new ideas and mindsets of thinking about sustainable aviation by way of hydrogen electric.

“But alternative fuels and electric hybrid systems are still a long way from being a viable replacement for the 100 billion gallons of jet fuel currently used by global aviation every year. We can’t leave this problem on the table for our children to solve,” Ansell said.

Artist’s rendering of an advanced commercial transport aircraft concept utilizing CHEETA systems.
Artist’s rendering of an advanced commercial transport aircraft concept utilizing CHEETA systems.

Ansell said one of the key successes from CHEETA is that it brings together people from many different disciplines and asks them to tackle a problem that is, greater than the sum of their individual parts, and works to find opportunities at the interfaces between disciplines.

“We brought together people in the traditional aeronautics disciplines, but we also had representatives from electrical engineering, material science, cryogenics,” he said. “We got everyone in the same room to talk to each other and try to learn from each other.

“The multidisciplinary mindset is what we are creating with this new center. The more you look at the sustainable aviation challenge, the more you realize it touches a more holistic energy ecosystem than just an airplane.”

Rashid Bashir, dean of The Grainger College of Engineering said, “We are excited to play a key role as the engineering community ushers in a new pathway to truly sustainable aviation. Phil Ansell has continued the tradition of scholarship, impact, and excellence that defines Grainger Engineering. He brings his deep understanding of sustainable aviation challenges, which is vital to solving these important questions and moving this field forward.”

Ansell described the three-prong philosophy for the center as meeting the needs of the economy, the environment, and society through future developments.

To be truly sustainable, aviation solutions must be economically viable and competitive, Ansell said.

“Technically, we need to look at how aviation interfaces with global energy needs, how aircraft are configured to operate in future developmental scenarios, and how aircraft should be designed as a result,” he said.

The center’s philosophy on society is that there needs to be science-based advice about policies, engagement with consumers, and education to establish the next generation of thought leaders to lead sustainable aviation. Ansell is currently teaching a new class on the subject this semester.

“One of the things we talked about in class was, how do we inform the general public about developments and possible pathways for the sustainable aviation field such that it is not approached or addressed with fear, but also help people to understand the urgency and personal responsibility,” Ansell said.

He said that although carbon dioxide emissions have a public focus, other non-carbon emissions are not as well understood, but should be.

sky with numerous contrails“We don’t yet know exactly what the implications will be of the hydrogen water vapor emissions in contrails and cirrus clouds that are aviation induced,” Ansell said. “I asked my class, now that they know that non-CO2 emissions are a problem, how can we help others recognize the problem? One idea they came up with is to do an outreach program with a citizen science mindset and ask people to go outside and count contrails. It’s something my four-year-old could do.  And it’s something that takes the reality of people's experiences and connects it to real scientific questions.”

Chris Raymond, AE B.S. ’86, has worked for Boeing for over 30 years and in 2020, was named Chief Sustainability Officer. Raymond has agreed to be a partner in this new effort by serving on the center’s advisory board.

Ansell said an important part of the center is to engage diverse perspectives. “We need to know the priority areas as perceived by, not just ourselves, but key stakeholders of the field, and that includes manufactures, like Boeing, because the findings from our program will ultimately also influence a lot of what they're doing. But they also might have eyes and perspectives that, as academics, we might not have.”

In terms of policy, Ansell said there are lots of issues associated with various viable pathways for aircraft power and energy that are currently envisaged, and key decisions need to be made to build a sustainable aviation future.

“Some people in policy making may not be looking at aviation specifically but would see the win-win opportunities on the table,” Ansell said. “For example, their focus might be in creating jobs, or to engage agriculture through the creation of new biofuels. The aviation industry, broadly, is a large enabler of commerce. The introduction of new environmentally friendly power and energy technologies across aviation can have influences that address environmental development needs, the personal wellbeing of population groups housed in areas disproportionately affected by aircraft noise and emissions and support the introduction of new commercial products into the global marketplace.”

Ansell said many of these opportunities are within reach, but they require the vision to be appropriately communicated to a breadth of communities who can enable or are affected by future developments.

“Our job will not be to interpret what the government should do, but rather provide information to support those thoughts, alongside political scientists, to make sure the information is properly communicated. In doing so, we are hoping to successfully consider some of these other considerations that are outside of the aircraft control volume.”

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This story was published October 19, 2022.