Axel Krein, Airbus research and technology chief

Axel Krein of Airbus views the challenge of sustainability as an opportunity to spark a change in the manner in which aircraft are designed. Ellie Zolfagharifard reports

As one of the greatest challenges facing the aviation industry, sustainability has become a topic of heated discussion. With air traffic expected by the EU to double by 2017, cynics are increasingly taking the view that the industry’s carbon emissions will soon outpace technological change.

However, ask an innovator such as Axel Krein, senior vice-president of research and technology at Airbus, what the future holds and he not only predicts carbon-free aircraft but also a completely different approach to aircraft design and development.

Sharing a sense of purpose with radical innovators of the past, the man overseeing research and technology at Airbus is not daunted by the prospect of sustainable development but instead views it as a way to spark a dramatic change in the way engineers design and integrate new concepts.

These aspirations are embodied in Airbus’s futuristic concept aircraft — a weird, wonderful and gigantic airliner that though it may never be built, is a source of inspiration for Krein’s team of engineers and researchers. ‘This plane is an artist’s impression combining all the requirements into one single aircraft,’ said Krein gesturing at a rendering of the aircraft. ‘You probably will never see this aircraft flying, at least not exactly as it is there, but it is used within the company as more of a philosophy of thinking and fuelling innovative ideas.’

Despite the optimism, Krein is more than mindful of the complex set of challenges facing civil aviation today. While 50 years ago, the emphasis was on safety and reliability, the focus is currently on environmental issues, economics and efficiency. ‘The challenges are very different,’ he said. ‘We have more stakeholders to take into account who want different things that can sometimes be contradictory. For instance, some technologies that are aimed at passenger appeal may have a slightly negative impact on environmental improvements and others that are focused on the environment could compromise the performance and simplicity of the aircraft.’

Balancing these challenges, Krein explained, can be a difficult task and requires a new approach to aircraft development. ‘Twenty years ago it was much easier because we were looking at individual technologies and these were embedded in an aircraft. Now, we are not only trying to get the maximum from the individual technologies, but also how they impact on each another.’

Krein terms this approach ‘multidisciplinary optimisation’ — a concept that appears to have generated a great deal of enthusiasm at Airbus in the wake of the iconic A380. With many features in common with the group’s future aircraft concept, the A380 is now being used as an example of success in this respect. However, despite significant achievements in the past, Krein is drawn towards emerging technologies and has his gaze is fixed firmly on the future.

‘There is a great deal of potential in new concepts. In terms of composite materials we are creating a whole new theory of assembly and I believe that we are only at the beginning. We are looking at electrical installation and protection against lightning strikes and electromagnetic interference. There is also a big step in front of us in terms of aerodynamic performance, weight reduction and cost reduction, and I think the integration of these technologies is set to provide a step-change in the performance of future aircraft.’

According to Krein, 30 per cent of the efficiency improvements in the airframe design are dependent on the aerodynamics and, despite advances in the optimisation of parts, there remains huge room for improvement. Composite materials, advances in the use of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and smart wing technologies are, he said, set to play a role in improving aerodynamic performance.

One approach that Krein is particularly excited about is the use of nanotechnology to provide advanced capabilities in vehicle health management. ‘There are some very interesting applications coming up’, he said. ‘For instance, we are investigating healable resin systems where we have nanocapsules embedded in the coating. These capsules contain some sealant and in the event of damage, this capsule breaks and the liquid is dispersed.’

While Krein’s optimism about these technologies is evident, he also noted that their development may be too reliant on other industries. ‘The question is when are they reliable enough, when are they robust enough and when can we produce them to the extent we need and huge amount of cost involved right now?’

There is little time to waste. Alongside a growing emphasis on carbon reduction, air travel is estimated to increase by roughly five per cent each year in the next 20 years, according to Krein. With such a steep increase in demand, no stone can be left unturned in the search for an environmentally sustainable technology. ‘We are in the process of testing and deliberating the benefits of fuel cells. We are putting a lot of effort into carbon reduction and technology concepts that can achieve this, and by the end of the next decade we hope to have an aircraft design that provides a 50 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.’

This may seem an ambitious target, but Krein is hopeful that in the long term the introduction of alternative energy sources such as biofuels will displace carbon emissions entirely. ‘The question right now is how to produce it in the quantities that are necessary and to integrate it in global airport infrastructures. This is a huge challenge but if we get over the first hurdle I think the demand will be there and then the supply will follow. I believe that by 2025 or so, we will probably have about a quarter of the fuel being made out of biofuel and maybe 30 per cent by 2030.’

Despite its obvious benefits for the aviation, he believes that change in this area may have to begin in other industries. ‘I would love to say that aviation is leading the introduction of biofuels but I’m not sure. When you compare the quantities we need to that used in energy generation or the automotive industries, the amount is much lower. So if you are the Shells or BPs of this world you look at the big quantities and the big quantities are not in aviation. In a way this is a good thing, because our CO2emissions are only at two per cent, but that’s also a reason for multinationals to take their focus away from aviation onto industries where more quantity is needed.’

Nevertheless, Krein’s outlook for the aviation industry is encouraging. With ‘multidisciplinary optimisation’ at the forefront of his agenda, he and his team appear confident that the challenges they face will drive innovation and bring Airbus’s concept aircraft closer to reality.

‘In terms of innovation, we are really pushing ahead. The current climate hasn’t seen a reduction in our efforts. I would say even the opposite, we are increasing our efforts, because we believe that innovation is one of our key success factors in creating a sustainable industry in the future.’