Two years ago, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales challenged a group of aviation industry players, convened through his Sustainable Markets Initiative, to half the time to achieve climate neutral aviation from 2050 to 2035, and asked the University of Cambridge to help unlock this change. The Whittle Lab and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership responded by creating the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA), a collaborative project working to accelerate the transition towards sustainable flight, by developing an evidence-based tools, simulations and visualisations that can map pathways to climate neutral aviation.

Last week, The Prince of Wales paid another visit to the Whittle Laboratory, home of the AIA, joined by Secretary of State for BEIS the Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng, for a tour of the Lab and a roundtable with key industry players. This roundtable was attended by a wide range of stakeholders, from incumbent industry representatives to new start-ups. Those present included Siemens Energy, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, the World Economic Forum, scientific advisors to government and ambassadorial representatives from key countries – as well as prominent voices in sustainability including Dame Polly Courtice and Professor Emily Shuckburgh.

On the tour, guests previewed the AIA’s new journey simulator which draws data from the AIA’s whole-system aviation model and allows the user to see the climate impact of different technology options at a point in the future. The interactive tool provides a clear visualisation of climate impact and encompasses energy, land use, fuel production, airports, aircraft design and operation, alongside sector economics and policy.

Dr Andy Wheeler demonstrating the AIA’s model to HRH The Prince of Wales, Clare Shine (CEO, CISL) and David Cardwell (Pro-Vice Chancellor for Strategy and Planning, University of Cambridge)

The calculator allows for rapid iteration through both technology and policy options, highlighting avenues of interest and thus providing guidance for wider innovation and policy action. Results to date already show the scale of the challenge and the high impact opportunities for change.

The lab tour also highlighted the cutting-edge zero emission technologies being developed in the Whittle Lab, including research into new propulsion technologies which can be attached to the wings of future aircraft, which aims to increase the energy efficiency of next generation aircraft. Guests were shown how the Whittle Lab is accelerating rapid technology development, cutting down the time it takes to innovate from months to weeks and decreasing the amount of resources required for aviation R&D in order to reduce the climate impact of the sector.

Prof. Rob Miller presenting the AIA’s strengths to key aviation stakeholders

The Roundtable discussion, chaired by CISL’s Emeritus Director Polly Courtice, brought to the fore key points on what steps are needed to create a climate neutral aviation sector. The Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for BEIS, highlighted the importance of the UK’s role as a science superpower and leader in ambition for aviation engineering. The Minister discussed the importance of both policy and partnership in the UK’s world-leading efforts towards net zero aviation.

Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology and Strategy officer at Rolls-Royce, discussed the vitality of agile methods and system integration approaches as the sector embarks onto different energy streams, from hydrogen to battery electric, and the importance of casting a wide net in terms of funding different routes as “it is too soon to bet on just one”. Formula One’s CTO Pat Symonds remarked that it is key for actors to see the bigger picture as we need a holistic view of the whole problem, and stressed the importance of the AIA’s model for a visualising every system involved in the sector. Sir Martin Donnelly, President of Boeing Europe noted that the United Kingdom plays a crucial role in accelerating climate action and that Boeing look forward to fostering global collaboration and achieving shared goals on emission reductions for the aviation sector. Cambridge University and the Whittle Laboratory are vital to the decarbonization of the aviation industry and are key partners with Boeing in the UK and beyond. Indeed, this collaboration has allowed six diverse departments from across the University including CISL, the Department of Engineering, and the Whittle Lab to bring their strengths together at the AIA.  

The Prince of Wales closed the roundtable, noting that he was encouraged to see the progress that has been made thus far by the remarkable team across the University of Cambridge. He emphasized the importance of not only scientific excellence but also ambitious policy in creating the market signals and mandates requiring the UK to get onto the right path in leading this sector in its appetite for change, and addressing this challenge for the coming generations.

The AIA’s Roundtable on sustainable aviation, chaired by Dame Polly Courtice

The Prince of Wales also emphasised the importance of the proposed new Whittle Laboratory building, currently under development. This new site would provide facilities aimed towards cutting the time to develop technologies from years to months.

The proposed new multi-disciplinary Whittle Lab is targeted at the critical early stage in the lifecycle of disruptive zero emission aviation technologies, the stage when the exploration and exploitation phases are strongly coupled, creating windows of opportunity to translate national scientific strengths into global technological and industrial leadership. The new Whittle Lab will also act as a hub for the Aviation Impact Accelerator, working to accelerate the sector towards a climate-neutral future and helping sustain the UK as a leader in aviation innovation.

Learn more about the Whittle Lab here and the Aviation Impact Accelerator here.