The big ideas that could transform the way planes impact the environment 

  • The aviation industry is a crucial cog in the global economy but our thirst for air travel has an environmental impact.
  • Rolls-Royce has been working on a number of projects that it hopes will help mitigate the impact of air travel.

From jetting off on a long-distance holiday to catching a short-haul flight for a crucial business meeting, the aviation industry is a crucial cog in the global economy.

But our thirst for air travel has an environmental impact. The European Commission, for example, has stated that direct emissions from aviation make up around 3 percent of the European Union’s total greenhouse gas emissions and over 2 percent of worldwide emissions.

Rolls-Royce is a major player in the aviation industry, with more than 13,000 engines in service globally. The business is keen to ensure that its jet engines continue to develop and improve as times change.

“Passenger numbers globally are increasing over 4.8 percent per year,” Paul Stein, the company’s chief technology officer (CTO), told CNBC’s “Sustainable Energy.”

“So it's vital that, whilst aviation is only 2 percent of global man-made CO2 (carbon dioxide)… we do our bit to drive down the emissions of our engines. And right now we're able, with very advanced technology, to improve the efficiency of our products by 1 percent per year, on average.”

Rolls-Royce has been working on an engine that it hopes will help mitigate the impact of air travel. The manufacturer has described the UltraFan as a “scalable jet engine design” that is suitable for both widebody and narrowbody aircraft.

“The UltraFan engine is going to offer about 25 percent fuel burn improvement relative to the first generation of Trent engines that Rolls-Royce produced,” Andy Geer, chief engineer and head of programme for Advance3, at Rolls-Royce, said.

“That’s a major step forward. As well as burning less fuel, that obviously means less emissions — whether it's carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides or particulates — and less noise as well,” he added.

Looking at the longer-term picture, could electric engines have a role to play in the future of aviation? Together with Airbus and Siemens, Rolls-Royce has been working on the E-Fan X, a hybrid-electric craft that will see a two-megawatt electric motor used alongside gas turbine engines.

“One of the ways in which electrification is impacting aviation is in creating a new type of aircraft for regional aviation, a so-called regional hybrid electric and (the) E-Fan X will be the world's first demonstrator of hybrid electric technology aimed at passenger aircraft,” Rolls-Royce’s CTO Stein said.