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How R&D is helping the aerospace sector tackle its net zero challenge

Peter Beavis Sector Specialist
Senior Sector Specialist
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Illustration example of aerospace and defence innovation.

Farnborough is synonymous with aviation, so where better to go to scan the horizon for the latest aerospace innovation than the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium’s annual conference? That’s where I headed in November with colleagues from ForrestBrown to find out what the future might hold – and how R&D can play a part in making net zero aviation a reality.

Scanning the horizon for aerospace innovation

The first thing that struck me is the close-knit community that is the aerospace supply chain. Familiar faces were taking the chance to catch up between conference sessions and it occurred that these relationships must make collaboration easier. This is a good thing given the scale of the challenge the sector faces in reducing its contribution to climate change.

Indeed, not surprisingly, the environment dominated discussion at the conference, with a strong focus on sustainability. The aerospace sector is seeking to achieve net zero by 2050, with sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), hydrogen and electric-powered aircraft all part of the solution. And big players in the sector are on board, including Airbus, Boeing and the RAF.

However, there are significant technological and commercial challenges to overcome in the transition to net zero. Chief amongst them is the cost of SAFs – seen as a bridge between fossil fuels and hydrogen, many believe they will deliver a green future for aviation.

Net zero aviation: aiming high while keeping an eye on marginal gains

While the aerospace sector’s focus on net zero is great to see, it’s important to remember that innovation often comes in incremental steps. The journey to zero carbon flight and zero emission aircraft will be a long and challenging one. Concept aircraft and early demonstrators are helpful sources of inspiration, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the marginal gains which will get us to our destination. This is where much of the unsung innovation will take place.

For example, it was fascinating to hear about work being done to reinforce the titanium used in aircraft landing gear with ceramic fibres in order to make it lighter and deliver fuel efficiency gains. This sort of innovation is taking place throughout the aerospace supply chain. Each example won’t deliver net zero flight in isolation but when taken together, these incremental improvements will make a significant difference to the sector’s carbon footprint. The R&D being carried out by companies across the UK to make net zero aviation a reality is the real engine behind progress towards this ambitious goal.

It continues to be an interesting time for net zero aviation. The Government’s ‘Jet Zero’ strategy commits UK domestic aviation to achieving net zero emissions by 2040, and for all airports in England to be zero-emission by the same year. The initiative was launched at the Farnborough Air Show earlier in 2022.

Adapting aerospace technology for a changing world

Innovative work is being done several steps down the supply chain from airframe and engine manufacturers. A business such as Boeing would typically have over 2,000 suppliers, with more than half being SMEs. Some of these companies are already considering the practical implications of the energy transition the sector is about to embark upon. For example, important research is taking place to establish how refuelling infrastructure designed for traditional jet fuel can be retrofitted to deal with hydrogen’s very different characteristics.

Planning ahead for 2023                                                                      

As I left the conference, I pondered what changes we might expect to see when the Farnborough Aerospace Consortium reconvenes this time next year. It’s a safe bet that we won’t all be taking carbon-free flights by then, but the ‘flygskam’ (or flight shame) many travellers feel on take-off may just be slightly diminished as a result of small but vitally important innovations in the aerospace supply chain, some of which I have touched on here. If that is to happen, then R&D incentives have a big part to play.

R&D tax relief for the aerospace supply chain

Aerospace companies of all sizes should make sure they are being rewarded for their investment in innovation, enabling them to put further funding behind R&D projects. They also need to be aware of the changes to R&D tax reliefs which come into force next spring. By planning ahead now, businesses throughout the aerospace supply chain can optimise their R&D investment, reaping the benefits in the shape of technological advances which will move us closer to achieving the sector’s net zero goal. 

Speak to me or one of our sector specialists to find out how ForrestBrown will help you navigate changes to the incentives and make the most of these powerful incentives.

Read more about R&D tax relief for the aerospace sector.