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Oxford University appears to be operating aircraft with ammonia

On Sunday, it was revealed that after a breakthrough at Oxford University, we could be close to seeing 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 having to buy redesigned aircraft.

B737-700 starts
Flights with zero emissions can be a few years away. Photo: Getty Images

Environmentally friendly aircraft on the horizon

The Telegraph reported on Sunday that greener aircraft engine technology being developed in Oxford could mean emission-free flights within a few years. Reaction Engines works with systems to adapt existing planes to run with zero emissions with ammonia as fuel instead of kerosene.

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Ammonia is harder to burn, making it safer than kerosene, and when it burns it does not produce carbon dioxide. The chemical has advantages over hydrogen and battery power alternatives – it is cheaper and can be stored in the wings, as conventional fuel is at the moment. Without having to create different fuel storage solutions, existing aircraft fleets could be adapted instead of designing jets. This also means that ticket prices would not have to be raised significantly.

Reaction Engines is working on the project at Oxford University’s Harwell Campus with funding from the Government’s Science and Technology Facility Council. James Barth, who has worked on the project, said:

“There is no reason why without the right funding we could not have a small-scale protester ready to test within a few years.”

Airplanes fly with contrails
Can harmful emissions soon be a story? Photo: Getty Images

Ammonia Air power

To run the engines, ammonia must be broken down into hydrogen and nitrogen using a heat exchanger and a catalyst. The chemical mixture would then 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 with more ammonia. Mr Barth says,

“Fuel can actually scrub its own emissions.”

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

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British breakthrough could mean cleaner skies over our cities. Photo: Getty Images

Governments insist on lower carbon emissions

With the world’s airlines based on the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen cleaner and clearer skies, which understands the realization that air travel must be more environmentally friendly. As many governments have been forced to rescue their national carriers to keep them afloat after the crisis, they have linked loans to emissions targets.

The British government promised last year to have net emissions by 2050. Several experiments with battery-powered aircraft have been carried out and companies such as Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens are investigating the new technology.

Head of Reaction Engines, Mark Thomas said,

“The pandemic can help drive green travel. We have lived under clear skies for the past few months. ” He added, “It becomes clear that it will be a real technical unit.”

It is possible that the cloud from COVID-19 will get the silver lining for much cleaner air travel.

What do you think about the driving force for greener flights? Let us know in the comments.

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