|OSU Sustainable Aviation Forum participants. I'm in the back row, far right, light plaid shirt. (image credit: The Ohio State University)|
I was invited again this year to participate in the Sustainable Aviation Forum hosted by The Ohio State University (OSU) at their airport location on March 28, 2023. Although it's a six hour roundtrip drive from my home office, it was well worth the investment in time (and electricity to recharge my car :) Great venue, speakers, topics, and colleagues!
Hydrogen in the Mix
Let me start by expressing my appreciation to Josh Knights at OSU for inviting me again this year. Also, gratitude to my fellow NASA alumni Joe Shaw who initially got me tied into this activity. Last year I was the outlier participant bringing up hydrogen during the panel sessions and breakout working groups, so I'm glad they didn't scratch me off the list for this year...
On the topic of hydrogen, what a difference just one year makes! Many of the presentations explicitly addressed hydrogen this time around, whereas none did last year. And the General Manager of Advanced Technology at GE Aerospace, Arjan Hegeman, gave a fantastic keynote presentation that included their development program in collaboration with Airbus for a hydrogen jet engine.
A student group from OSU also presented an impressively comprehensive project they tackled on sustainable aviation that included a look at hydrogen. And one of the event hosts who I met at last year's event, PhD candidate David Mapunda, did an excellent job keeping us on track topically and temporally throughout the forum.
SAFs and Batteries
The other two options for decarbonizing aviation were also well represented this year: sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and batteries. The Technical Director of the Flight Sciences Dept at Honda Aircraft, Kui Ou, and GE Aerospace's Arjan Hegeman both described active development programs around SAFs.
And the Chief Engineer at Textron eAviation, JD Terry, talked about their new design incorporating batteries integrated into the wings of an aircraft. This panel session was expertly facilitated by my OSU colleague, Professor Matilde D'Arpino, who is doing cutting edge research in several electric aviation and power systems areas with her team.
Strategy and Workforce
The joint venture between GE and Honda was also featured with the President of newly formed GE Honda Aero Engines, Mel Solomon, giving an overview of their goals and efforts. Discussions on regional aviation strategy were provided by state of Ohio representative Adam Holmes; Ohio economic development speakers Elaine Bryant (JobsOhio) and Rich Granger (FlyOhio); and OSU Professor Amber Woodburn McNair. And the wrap up talk was from Joe Zeis of the Ohio Governor's office.
A great panel discussion on aviation workforce challenges was well represented by OSU at Lima Dean Tim Rehner, Boeing Director of R&T Mark Cleary, Deborah Scherer of One Columbus, and Eboni Wimbush of the Airport Minority Advisory Council. Attracting and retaining the needed skillsets continues to be a critically important issue as the global aviation community transitions away from legacy fuels. This topic also dovetailed nicely into earlier opening remarks by OSU's Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska.
Another interesting theme throughout the forum was infrastructure. Rex Alexander of Five-Alpha provided very insightful perspectives on what it takes to create or convert a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) site to accommodate electric aircraft.
Just a couple of interesting takeaways from his remarks were the long runs of heavy gauge copper wire often required, and the fact that it isn't very green if recharging is done with electricity from a coal power plant.
This infrastructure topic resonated with me since one of my current projects is supporting a customer developing in-situ liquid hydrogen infrastructure capability for the Air Force and Army. Hydrogen generated onsite by electrolyzers splitting water using a renewable energy microgrid. Then liquefied and loaded onto queued aircraft autonomously.
Refuel and fly in minutes rather than the hours it takes to recharge batteries. Twenty times the range and flight time of an equivalent battery powered aircraft. And no long copper runs or coal (or any other fossil fuels) required.
Carbon as a Proxy for "Green"
An additional topic that I brought up during the forum is related to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We commonly use "net-zero" carbon as a proxy for addressing the existential threat of increasing GHG effects. However, the lifecycle environmental impacts of any fuel or battery is vitally important to keep in mind.
For example, I've been helping to develop a liquid methane propulsion system for one of my customers over the past few years. It's the only project remaining in my company's portfolio that isn't focused on liquid hydrogen. And my willingness to continue supporting it is waning. Here's why...
Methane (and by extension, natural gas) is a 25 times more potent GHG emission than carbon dioxide. So any leaks or other releases of methane are huge contributors to the problem. And recent satellite data has revealed how shockingly widespread and grossly underreported methane and natural gas leaks are globally.
So even if we use so called "green" methane by combining hydrogen with carbon dioxide pulled from the air (e.g., Sabatier process), it does nothing to address the impacts of methane releases throughout the delivery and distribution pathway before it's combusted. This is a case where "zero net carbon" is a totally inadequate proxy for GHG emissions and related environmental impacts.
By the way, batteries have their own significant lifecycle environmental impacts that we are already witnessing with the current supply chain scaling. Lithium mining, strategic materials sourcing, recycling,... and we are still very early in the technology adoption curve.
But my question to one of the forum panels was about SAFs, and if they suffer from drawbacks regarding GHG impacts similar to methane and natural gas. The answer I got was very candid: yes and no, depending on the feedstocks used. Biofuels apparently aren't so bad; other SAFs are another issue.
The follow up question from an OSU alumni from Brazil was even more eye opening. He described the alarming regional impact in South America already with the scaling of bio-based feedstocks to support SAF processing. The answer to his question was also very candid: we are just scratching the surface on that issue.
I'll end this post where those of you who follow my blog know it always leads to: hydrogen. I am unabashedly biased in this regard because hydrogen completely and fully solves all the environmental impact issues when it is generated from renewable energy sources: GHGs, supply chains, scarce resources, recycling, etc. It also produces copious amounts of potable water as a "byproduct" that could be a game changer in many global regions.
While I'm an open minded advocate of any solutions that potentially get us heading in the right direction, the ultimate answer to many applications and industry sectors is clear. The sooner we make the transition away from fossil fuels and toward hydrogen, the greater our chances of pulling up on the environmental damage control stick before we hit the ground in the flight vehicle we call earth.
Matt Moran is the Managing Member at Moran Innovation LLC, and previous Managing Partner at Isotherm Energy. He's been developing power and propulsion systems for more than 40 years; and break-through liquid, slush, and gaseous hydrogen systems since the mid-1980s. Matt was also the Sector Manager for Energy & Materials in his last position at NASA where he worked for 31 years. He's been a co-founder in seven technology startups; and provided R&D and engineering support to many organizations. Matt has three patents and more than 50 publications including the Cryogenic Fluid Management series. He also leads the monthly LH2 Era™ Webinar.