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Ohio State researchers, industry leaders seek sustainable aviation solutions

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June 6, 2022

The Ohio State University this spring hosted nearly 50 industry, government and academic thought leaders for the Ohio State Forum on Aviation Sustainability and Decarbonization to discuss areas in which the aviation sector could reduce its carbon footprint and become more sustainable. The dialogue sought to foster learning and sharing among the participants, better define the main challenges and serve as a first step toward designing research to develop potential solutions.

The airline industry accounts for nearly 3 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. Its emissions will likely stand out even more relative to the rest of the transportation industry as many segments, such as travel by automobile, go electric.

“Aviation presents substantial sustainability and decarbonization challenges and opportunities,” says John Horack, the Neil Armstrong Chair in Aerospace Policy, who holds a joint appointment between the John Glenn College of Public Affairs and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the College of Engineering. “Greater collaboration between researchers such as experts at Ohio State and sector leaders are needed to unlock innovations that will lead to meaningful decarbonization and sustainability across the industry.”

Nawal Taneja, Ohio State Professor Emeritus and global aviation industry strategist and advisor, gave the keynote address at the forum and provided these insights:

  • Achieving “sustainable aviation” by 2050 is technically feasible but faces significant economic challenges to implement in a reasonable amount of time. These challenges include scalability, adequate return on investments and an enabling policy framework.
  • Overcoming these challenges will require a high degree of collaboration and the ability to integrate multiple disciplines including engineering, computer science, business, policy and others.
  • More attention to economics and policy can support progress made through technological advances across the sector.

Sustainable aviation is complex, but the time has come to address environmental, social and governance issues across the industry, said Glenn Richardson, managing director of advanced manufacturing and aerospace at JobsOhio, who gave closing remarks at the event.

Forum participants discussed sustainability related to aircraft, navigation systems, airports and ground operations, and social justice. They also considered ways a research institution such as Ohio State could advance sustainability in the industry.

  • A reduction of aircraft emissions can be achieved through hybrid propulsion and aircraft electrification. Battery technology still has its limitations, especially for medium to large aircraft, but technology developments could enable hybrid electric propulsion to reduce aircraft fuel consumption. Airlines are also exploring sustainable aviation fuels, and segments of the aerospace industry are showing interest in hydrogen energy. Research could impact the speed of new technology adoption, provide insights into system behavior through the use of “digital twins” and address policymaking questions.
  • Future generations of navigation systems can help reduce the carbon footprint of aircraft through automation, but safety is a top priority and humans will still be required for critical decisions. Research could address communication gaps in human-computer interface technology as well as ways automated systems could be used for aircraft maintenance and other purposes.
  • In their master plans for airport and ground operations, airports are increasingly examining sustainability and energy efficiency such as upgrading boiler and heating systems and introducing waste compacting and recycling, but leaders face challenges in balancing investments and payback periods. Researchers could examine the greening of construction codes, investigate how quantitative data could strengthen airports’ returns on investments and find opportunities to use green space within FAA guidelines.
  • Airports can consider opportunities to affect systemic change to promote social justice in the aviation sector by engaging local communities and hiring new workers knowledgeable about diversity, equity and inclusion while focusing on STEM and engineering skill sets. Researchers could help by finding meaningful ways to engage the public and by reconciling some areas of sustainability, for instance reducing fuel consumption, with social justice goals, such as longer taxiing times to avoid noise pollution. The operations at The Ohio State University Airport could provide opportunities to explore different engagement approaches.

Richardson pointed out that sustainable aviation could create new job opportunities for the state, and Ohio State has many assets to address the challenges to sustainable aviation. In addition to its researchers and students, The Ohio State University Airport holds great potential to advance multiple dimensions of environment, social and governance. The university also has the credibility to bring together industry, academia, government, economic development agencies and others to explore emerging trends such as advanced air mobility and sustainability.

The event was organized by the university’s Aerospace Research Center; Center for Automotive Research; Center for Aviation Studies; College of Engineering; Enterprise for Research, Innovation and Knowledge; SIM Center; and Sustainability Institute as well as The Ohio State University Airport. Financial support for the event has been provided by the Honda USA Foundation.

Read the Ohio State Forum on Aviation Sustainability and Decarbonization report.