Will planes run on gas and electricity?

Tomorrow, the suburban town of Zhukovsky near Moscow will host the main aviation event of the year, MAKS International Aviation and Space Salon, where Russia plans to showcase the achievements of one of the most high-tech sectors of the domestic industry. The engine is the most essential part of an aircraft, something its technological excellence largely depends on. What changes should be expected in the aircraft engine industry in the coming years, and how can engine developers meet head-on the expected transformations in the industry? Invest Foresight marks the opening of the air show by publishing an interview with Mikhail Gordin, Director General of the Central Institute of Aviation Motors (CIAM), a part of the Zhukovsky Institute National Research Center.

Recent trends: electric planes and air mobility

– What are the main trends in modern aircraft engine manufacturing?

– I would note five of them. The main thing is safety, which is an ongoing issue. Of the four others, the first trend is the use of electric energy. It has both environmental and economic aspects. Modern gas turbine engines have reached a high level of excellence by now. So any potential increase in the efficiency of conventional engines by 2030 is limited to 20%. At the same time, polluting emissions and noise, the target indicators for developers of new aviation equipment, should be steadily decreasing. By 2030, we plan to reduce noise by 20-25 decibels and emissions by 60%, in accordance with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards.

A breakthrough in reducing aviation’s environmental impact can be achieved through a phased development of revolutionary technologies. That is why all the leading countries and world-class companies are exploring the possibility of using hybrid or fully electric engines, which can provide significant gains both environmentally and economically.

We are not talking about a commercial product yet – only about research and design, and later development, but eventually this work should lead to actual offers to the market.

– What sources of energy will future electric planes use? Li-ion batteries?

– They can be different. Generally, yes, small aircraft can fly on lithium-ion batteries, like Slovenian Pipistrel trainer aircraft. But at this stage of technology development, a ton of kerosene can produce 20-25 times more energy than a ton of batteries. The power-to-weight ratio of fuel cells is also significantly behind gas turbine engines, although it is ahead of batteries under certain conditions.

According to the science and technology forecasting we do at CIAM, batteries will not have sufficient capacity to power a large long-range passenger aircraft for another 10-15 years. However, progress is ongoing; small electric planes have been invented.

— What about drones?

— Absolutely. When it comes to drones, the smaller the better.

One of the major problems for all electrotechnics is abstracting heat. We could use air or liquid cooling but let’s not forget that capacity is proportional to a cube of linear dimensions while the area of the surface that dissipates heat is only proportional to a square. This means you have to develop complex cooling systems that will, unfortunately, add more weight to the power unit.

This simple comparison between a cube and a square explains why increasing the capacity of an electric machine entails a host of other difficulties. This is why there are small planes with electric propulsion but development of larger aircraft will take much longer.

— Let’s get back to the trends. You named two major ones. Are there any more worth mentioning?

— Passenger operations is something we must talk about. Air mobility is an even more relevant trend. Trend number four is controlling air traffic as an integrated transport system rather than one object such as an airplane or an airport.

As for city air mobility, the question is how we can regulate air traffic. It took decades to develop and enforce modern aviation legislation applicable everywhere in the world.

But unmanned aviation did not exist at the time. Now it is manifesting itself and requires its own rules and legislation.

Fuel types: optimizing expenses

— Does CIAM have any successful experience with gas? Or perhaps it is not the most relevant concern at the moment?

— Yes, there was research into using natural gas fuel in aviation. There were two projects. Our colleagues worked on one of them and completed it in the 1990s after the government was no longer interested. I’m talking about Tupolev Tu-155 and its first flights on hydrogen in 1988 and on liquefied natural gas in 1989.

The second experiment involved condensed aviation fuel. One of the engines of a Mi-8 helicopter was adapted to this fuel. The technology has been tested, the helicopter can fly. But the question is who can supply this gas fuel at a reasonable price?

—Electric engines can solve some of the environmental problems. But hydrogen and methane can probably do it better.

— Of course, hydrogen is more eco-friendly than other types of fuel. Because, as you know, decomposition of hydrogen produces water rather than carbon dioxide. So hydrogen fuel is an area worth looking at. It has its own difficulties but it also has potential.

As for electric engines, you are right, they are safe for the environment. If aircraft uses a power unit fully operating on electricity then there will be no emissions. A hybrid power unit means the aircraft will still burn fuel – although less than conventional power units. Methane, kerosene, or some other fuel – it doesn’t matter. It still produces CO2.

Methane is more cost-efficient in terms of weight because it is lighter. But its heating value per unit volume is lower and, therefore, fuel tanks must be larger, which may cause additional drag. So it requires optimization, calculating expenses and comparing pros and cons of different types of fuel.

R&D support for industry

— It would be interesting to learn about CIAM’s contacts with design bureaus and production enterprises.

— Since Soviet times, this interaction has been based on CIAM’s R&D support for industry. It includes conducting research and tests for aircraft manufacturing and related industries, as well as issuing documents on sufficiency of the events or works that are required to go from stage to stage of the project, including certification.

We cooperate closely with design bureaus in projects to create new aircraft engines. In fact, we draft guidelines for designers. All research and development begins with calculations and ends with creating a prototype, which then gets tested.

The results of research, on one hand, are kept in the heads of our employees, and on the other hand are published in research reports, articles and books. Designers use this new knowledge to make their engineering decisions.

Design bureaus trust our experience and competence and often request calculation, project and experimental research, including for elements of engineering and manufacture development works whose results they use later. And, of course, we do not compete with them in terms of making design documentation or regulating the adopted engineering decisions.

In addition, CIAM has unique research test facilities. All domestic aircraft engines have been tested here.

Joint projects with colleagues from Europe, China and India

— CIAM takes part in numerous international projects. What unites you with your foreign colleagues?

— We are united by research work. Both fundamental and sectoral research is in fact an exchange of knowledge. Fundamental science develops knowledge for all humanity, while sectoral research creates knowledge for a concrete industry in a concrete country. But both of them are sciences, and they cannot develop in an information vacuum.

We have to communicate on fundamental and general issues of sectoral research, share our developments with the outside world because the result of this communication is more knowledge. We have joint projects with a range of European countries, with China and India. For instance, European cooperation programs work in the following way: the European Union and Russia both provide funding for research and then share the knowledge. This joint research is being conducted both in applied matters and fundamental science such as gas-dynamics or mechanical strength.

The second aspect of cooperation is related to our experimental facilities: they are unique not only for Russia, but for the entire world. Foreign engine-making companies ask us to conduct tests using our equipment.

— Have the anti-Russian sanctions affected your operations? Do you have any information regarding the import substitution for the produce of Ukraine’s Motor Sich manufacturer?

— There are certain problems, not legal, but political ones. It has become more difficult for our foreign partners to interact with us: they need to explain to their management why they want to work in Russia. We are ready to cooperate, no problem. But they have to decide for themselves.

As regards import substitution, helicopter engines made by the Ukrainian manufacturer can be replaced by those produced in Russia. So far, Ukrainian-made Klimov TV3-117 engines are used in a large number of helicopters; these engines have to be repaired and maintained. But our colleagues from the JSC «UEC-Klomov» gas turbine engine designer company, in cooperation with other developers and producers that are part of the United Engine Corporation, have set up the production of the VK-2500 turboshaft aero engine and will further boost it.

No-one gets hired off the street

— It is no secret that there is a generational gap in engineering schools and personnel. During the 1990s, mid-level employees were actually made redundant. What efforts is CIAM taking to attract young specialists?

— Unfortunately, that’s the case; yet, I am confident that this generational gap is going to be eliminated soon. CIAM employs many staff members aged under 35. We also have a considerable number of specialists aged over 70; there are 80-year-olds and even 90-year-olds. They continue to work and pass on their knowledge and experience to younger generations, and act as teachers and mentors.

Recently, CIAM’s Young Professionals Board organized a National Conference of Young Scientists and Specialists, which drew together students, postgraduates and industry professionals. The institute’s most experienced staff members were the main jury at section meetings, where young people presented their work and reports. Many of these staff members have set up their scientific schools at the institute.

— Are you satisfied with young university graduate employees?

— We select them ourselves. No-one gets hired off the street. The fact is that our specialists teach at leading technical universities, and they are definitely able to spot competent and enthusiastic students that can be added to CIAM’s personnel. Such students are engaged in work starting at three- or four-year mark.

— What universities serve as major graduate talent pools for CIAM?

— These are Bauman Moscow State Technical University, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, Moscow Aviation Institute, and partially Moscow Power Engineering Institute. Working at CIAM is not for people looking to build a fast career in management: those should better choose an easier path of working in industry as becoming a top manager at our institute is a long and labor-intensive process. Our staff members are rather fans and enthusiasts of their work.   

— It appears that most of them are those who used to be members of children’s aviation clubs.

— Not necessarily. I would say they are the kind of people who seek to create tech items rather than receive material assets or accolades.

— What would you like to wish readers of our business magazine, who include many specialists involved in innovation business?

— It is pleasing that your audience includes professionals with a degree in engineering. I think this is very important; it provides knowledge as well as methods, approaches and some sort of an inner code for getting yourself and your work organized. An engineer aims at a specific result and is committed to achieving it. I think many of your readers would agree with me.

Also, an engineer is aware of the importance of team work, which is crucial for creating any important thing, particularly a complex technical device. But the main aspect of engineering activity is being involved in producing something that is able to move or fly – the ultimate and tangible result of the work. This truly inspires and motivates.

The more people choose a career in our sector, the faster it will advance. I would advise young people to choose this profession, while innovation business investors should put money into engineering projects and teams. This will indeed be a worthy investment.

By Sergei Nikulin and Alexei Golyakov

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