In 2009, when the world’s airlines committed to cutting their carbon emissions in half by 2050, they were seen as global front runners across all industries. Other sectors barely acknowledged climate change as a problem, much less made similarly ambitious commitments.
But those decade-old commitments are now seen merely as good starting points for meeting sustainability targets. In 2021, the International Air Transport Association pledged to meet a much more aggressive goal of net-zero emissions within the same time frame. Today, airlines and their suppliers are trailblazing a clear path toward decarbonizing aviation. However, this will require a vast, collective effort to develop and mature a range of capabilities and technologies. Given the urgency, incrementalism won’t cut it.
To accelerate progress across multiple fronts—including electric- and hydrogen-powered aircraft, potentially disruptive airframe designs, lighter and more heat-resistant materials, and higher energy-density batteries—using digital tools such as virtual twins will be imperative. In fact, it may be the only way that technologists can develop and certify products rapidly enough as they devise practical and affordable solutions.
A virtual twin is a digital model of an object, system, or process that exists or could exist in the physical world. A true virtual twin can also interact dynamically with simulations of the physical world it will eventually occupy. It enables design teams to explore “what-if” and “then-what” questions that would be expensive, slow, or impossible to pose with a physical product.
By employing virtual twins, engineers can make changes at any stage of the development process, well before a product is ready for production. Individual stages are linked seamlessly and the virtual environment becomes the testing ground, facilitating innovative product design and helping engineering teams improve efficiencies. In short, virtual twins reduce costs, waste, and energy while accelerating development time.
There are countless areas where technologists can apply virtual twins in exploring pathways to zero-carbon-emission flight. For example, using virtual twins, one of the fundamental questions companies decarbonizing aviation must answer is how hydrogen and battery technologies will evolve in order to solve the energy density problem in an electric-powered aircraft. Liquid hydrogen requires larger storage tanks due to its low density compared to jet fuel, while the scalability of fuel cells to the megawatt levels that commercial aircraft require has yet to be determined.
Virtual twins will also be indispensable to builders of gas turbine engines who are entering an unparalleled era of new technology development. OEMs are working with research agencies, airframe companies, and regulators to define technology paths for the next generation of sustainable propulsion. Initiatives range from higher bypass-ratio engines to open rotor concepts to electrically assisted turbines and, of course, new fuels such as hydrogen.
No aerospace company would dare choose one engineering solution over another until it fully understood the tradeoffs and how well each could validate high-stake choices. A typical breakthrough technology costs billions of dollars to develop and can take more than a decade to mature. Thus, virtual twins, in combination with advanced modeling and validation solutions, will be crucial in making these breakthroughs possible within the accelerated time frame necessary to meet the urgent requirement of decarbonizing aviation.
While decarbonizing air transport requires a change to the status quo, bold action is required to meet the challenge. Evolving models to capitalize on the power of virtual twins will place the industry on the right trajectory toward sustainable aviation.
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