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Oxford University looks to power planes with ammonia



On Sunday, it was revealed that, after a breakthrough at Oxford University, we could be close by to see commercial aircraft powered by ammonia instead of kerosene. British technology would result in zero-emission aircraft, and airlines would be able to adapt their existing fleets rather than need to purchase a redesigned aircraft.

B737-700 rising
Zero emission air travel can be a matter of years away. Photo: Getty Images

Eco-friendly aircraft on the horizon

The Telegraph reported on Sunday that the green aircraft engine technology being developed in Oxford could mean air travel without emissions within a few years. Reaction Engines is working on systems to adapt existing aircraft to run at zero emissions using ammonia as fuel instead of kerosene.

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Ammonia is harder to burn, making it safer than kerosene, and when burned, it does not produce CO2. The chemical has benefits over hydrogen and battery power options – it is cheaper and can be stored in the arms, as conventional fuel is at the moment. Without having to create different fuel storage solutions, existing aircraft fleets can be adapted instead of aircraft planning. This also means that tariffs will not have to increase significantly.

Reaction Engines is working on the project at Oxford University Harwell University with funding from the Government Science and Technology Facilities Council. James Barth, who has been working on the project, said,

“There is no reason why, without proper funding, we could not have a small-scale demonstrator ready to try within a few years.”

Planes fly with counters
Could harmful emissions soon be a thing of the past? Photo: Getty Images

Ammonia aircraft power

To power the engines, ammonia must be separated into hydrogen and nitrogen using a heat exchanger and a catalyst. The chemical mixture would ignite in the combustion chamber to create power. The only emissions would be harmless water vapor, nitrogen, and possibly nitrogen oxides, which can be removed using more ammonia. Mr. Barth says,

“Fuel can actually clean up its emissions.”

Ammonia is currently a similar price to kerosene, although producing completely green ammonia would be more expensive. However, higher production costs can be offset by lower carbon taxes. One of the few disadvantages of ammonia over conventional fuel is its lower energy density, which means that aircraft would have a slightly shorter range.

Southwest 737
British progress could mean clearer skies over our cities. Photo: Getty Images

Governments insist on reducing carbon emissions

With airlines around the world based on the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen clearer and clearer skies, making sense that air travel needs to be more eco-friendly. While many governments have been forced to bail out their national carriers to keep them afloat in the crisis, they have tied loans to emissions targets.

The UK government pledged last year to have zero net emissions by 2050. Several tests of battery-powered aircraft have been carried out and companies such as Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens are looking at new technology.

Reaction Engines chief executive Mark Thomas said,

“The pandemic could help push for green travel. We have lived under clear skies for the last few months. ” He added, “It is becoming clear that there will be a real technological movement.”

It may be possible for the COVID-19 cloud to bring the silver layer of much cleaner air travel.

What do you think about pushing for greener flight? Tell us in the comments.


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