Boeing’s Sustainability Approach: A Closer Look
Jim Hileman, vice president and chief engineer of Sustainability & Future Mobility at Boeing, talked about the company’s approach to sustainability in a recent interview with Avionics International. This is Part 2 of a two-part Q&A series with Jim Hileman. Part 1 features a discussion of Boeing’s approach to next-gen aircraft, new technologies, and improving operational efficiency (read Part 1 here).
Avionics International: In terms of sustainability, what strategies is Boeing adopting to reduce the environmental impact of aircraft? Are there any specific initiatives or technologies being developed?
Jim Hileman: We are working closely with our customers and governments around the globe to support civil aviation’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Boeing continues to simultaneously advance four strategic pathways to achieve this goal: fleet renewal, renewable energy, advanced technologies, and operational efficiency.
New airplanes provide significant efficiency gains, and each generation of fleet renewal reduces fuel use and emissions.
Under any scenario, we will need massive amounts of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) if we are to meet civil aviation’s 2050 net zero commitment. We are working with partners around the world to advance SAF as well as with our supply chain to enable 100% SAF compatibility on our airplanes by 2030.
In addition to the work on advancing SAF, Boeing is also developing future flight concepts that integrate other renewable fuel sources with advanced technology.
This includes studying hydrogen and hybrid-electric aircraft concepts across key areas, such as safety, physics, and certification challenges, future market applicability, and technology development. We are also examining other potential future energy carriers for aviation.
Flying existing airplanes with greater operational efficiency can reduce emissions; in some instances, this could reduce emissions by up to 10%.
Boeing expanded its ecoDemonstrator flight-test program to further accelerate innovation for safety and sustainability. With the 2023 program, we will assess 19 technologies on the current flagship Boeing ecoDemonstrator airplane, a 777-200ER, which include sustainable wall panels in the cargo hold that are made of 40% recycled carbon fiber and 60% resin made from a bio-based feedstock as well as a fiber optic fuel quantity sensor compatible with 100% SAF.
This year, the Boeing ecoDemonstrator program also added “Explorer” airplanes to focus testing on a singular project or technology. The highest available blend of SAF is purchased to cover all flight tests.
Avionics International: Is Boeing taking any steps to engage with regulators, industry stakeholders, or customers to promote sustainability?
Jim Hileman: Global partnerships are key to advancing our strategies. In 2022, we added ten major technology development partnerships to enable collaboration on a sustainable aerospace future and in 2023 organized the Sustainable Aerospace Together Forum in Seattle, which brought multiple stakeholders from aviation, energy, finance, and policy under one roof to collectively discuss sustainability solutions.
To support the aviation industry as it pursues its sustainability goals, Boeing created and publicly launched Cascade, a data modeling and visualization tool that assesses the full lifecycle impacts of each of our major paths to decarbonize aviation and to inform the most impactful and effective strategies to reach net zero by 2050. Airline operators, industry partners, and policymakers use the tool to inform when, where, and how different fuel sources intersect with new airplane designs. Cascade is available at http://www.sustainabilitytogether.aero/.
Boeing also published its 2023 Sustainability Report in June, highlighting accomplishments through the past year and across key goal areas of employee safety and well-being; global aerospace safety; equity, diversity and inclusion; sustainable operations; innovation and clean technologies; and community engagement.
Avionics International: What is the company’s perspective on the future of electric or hybrid-electric aircraft?
Jim Hileman: SAF offers the greatest potential to decarbonize aviation in the coming decades with dramatic reductions in CO2 emissions over the fuel’s life cycle. SAF created from waste materials can provide an 85% reduction in emissions and there are efforts underway to get larger reductions in the future. SAF is required to meet the net zero 2050 goal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only thing we are doing.
Boeing is studying electric aviation including fully electric, hybrid-electric and more electrification of aircraft systems, as well as concepts that use hydrogen fuel cells. We are also conducting research on other energy carriers that could be used to power aircraft in the future.
Some examples of our work on electric and hybrid-electric aircraft:
- EPFD: As part of Boeing, Aurora is supporting GE Aerospace and NASA’s Electrified Powertrain Flight Demonstration (EPFD) program by building and flight testing a hybrid-electric aircraft demonstrator. The project will demonstrate practical, vehicle level integration with GE’s megawatt-class electrified propulsion systems and get these systems into flight.
- Wisk: Boeing has made significant investments in California-based Wisk Aero, a leading Advanced Air Mobility company and is partnering on development of an all-electric, self-flying air taxi in the U.S. In 2023, Wisk became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing.
Avionics International: What advancements in aircraft technology might be coming in the next decade? How will these advancements impact the efficiency and performance of aircraft?
Jim Hileman: Boeing continues to advance its four strategic pathways to reduce emissions: fleet renewal, renewable energy, advanced technologies, and operational efficiency.
We are doing everything we can to enable the use of 100% SAF as soon as possible.
SAF is currently limited to a blend of 50% with petroleum.
Boeing is working with suppliers to study how 100% SAF interacts with airplane parts that come into contact with fuel. The testing is crucial to understanding the work we need to do to make Boeing’s airplane systems and materials compatible with 100% SAF.
Boeing is also supporting the work of ASTM International to develop jet fuel standards that would enable existing aircraft to use 100% SAF with synthetic aromatics produced from biomass and waste resources. Significant analysis and component testing, as well as demonstration flights, show that it is indeed possible to fly on certain 100% SAFs, and to do so with the fleet of aircraft we have in use today.
Hydrogen: Boeing has conducted six demonstration projects and has extensive experience using hydrogen as a fuel for launch vehicle and space applications. We continue to study and test the potential of this energy source. In the 2040s, hydrogen fuel cell powered air vehicles could start to penetrate the market in the sub-regional segment.
Sustainable Flight Demonstrator (SFD): In January, NASA selected Boeing and its industry team to lead the development and flight testing of a full-scale Transonic Truss-Braced Wing (TTBW) demonstrator airplane as part of the SFD program. The airplane has been designated as X-66A and is NASA’s first X-plane focused on helping achieve its goal of net-zero aviation greenhouse gas emissions. When combined with expected advancements in propulsion systems, materials, and systems architecture, a single-aisle airplane with a TTBW configuration could reduce fuel consumption and emissions up to 30% relative to today’s domestic fleet of airplanes.