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Oxford University seeks to power aircraft using ammonia



It was revealed on Sunday that, after a breakout at Oxford University, we could soon be seeing commercial planes powered by ammonia gas instead of kerosene. British technology will create zero-emissions aircraft, and airlines will be able to tailor their existing fleets instead of buying redesigned aircraft.

B737-700 takes off
Emission-free air travel could be only a problem for many years to come. 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 zero-emissions air travel within the next few years. Reaction Engines is working on systems to tune existing aircraft to run with exhaust air by using ammonia as fuel instead of kerosene.

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Ammonia is more difficult to burn, so it is safer than kerosene. It does not produce CO2 when burned. This chemical is more beneficial than hydrogen and battery power options – it’s cheaper and can be stored in the blades, like conventional fuel does today. Without the need to create different fuel storage solutions, existing aircraft fleets can be tweaked instead of redesigning the jets. This also means that the fare will not need to increase significantly.

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

“There’s no reason, without the right funding, we can’t have a small scale rally ready to test within a few years.”

The plane flies in the opposite direction
Can toxic emissions soon become a thing of the past? Photo: Getty Images

Ammonia aircraft energy

To power the engine, ammonia will need to be separated into hydrogen and nitrogen using a heat exchanger and catalyst. The chemical mixture is then burned in the combustion chamber to generate energy. The only exhaust will be harmless steam, nitrogen and possibly nitrous oxide, which can be removed using more ammonia. Mr. Barth said,

“The fuel can actually filter its own flue gas.”

Ammonia is currently priced similarly to kerosene, although it would be more expensive to produce purely green ammonia. However, higher production costs can be offset by a low carbon tax. One of the downsides of ammonia compared to conventional fuels is the lower energy density, which means the aircraft will have a slightly shorter range.

Southwest 737
The UK’s breakthrough could mean cleaner skies over our cities. Photo: Getty Images

Governments are determined to reduce carbon emissions

With airlines around the world being hit by the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen the skies cleaner and clearer, giving the realization that air travel needs to be more environmentally friendly. Since many governments were forced to bail out their national carriers to keep them afloat after the crisis, they linked loans to emissions targets.

The UK government has committed last year to zero net emissions by 2050. Several battery-powered aircraft trials have been conducted and companies like Airbus, Rolls-Royce and Siemens are considering new technology.

Reaction Engines CEO Mark Thomas said,

“Pandemic can help promote green tourism. We have lived under clear skies for the past few months. ” He added, “Obviously there will be a real technological dynamics.”

It is possible that the COVID-19 cloud will provide a silver layer for much cleaner air travel.

What do you think about promoting greener flying? Let us know in the comments.


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