Embraer is one of the world's main aircraft manufacturers - an industry that is finding itself increasingly under pressure with regard to environmental concerns. GES spoke to Embraer's Chairman, Maurício Novis Botelho, at the 39th St Gallen Symposium about how his company is looking to the future.
What are the burning environmental issues when it comes to public aircrafts at the moment?
One of the main concerns are, of course, the regulatory issues concerning noise and gaseous emissions. These are regulated internationally by the ICAO, which belongs to the UN. In Europe they are more stringent regarding this matter than in comparison to the US. But, in general, these regulations will become more and more stringent until perhaps, at some point, only new technology will be able to comply to the legal requirements.
If this is the case, then this is the point where innovative solutions will be called upon.
What kind of solutions will be offered?
New thinking about engines is needed. I believe by the year 2050 we are likely to have new technology available on this side. Aerodynamic noise has to do with design but this is a small part. A much larger part of noise is generated by the engine itself.
You have spoken fondly of turbo-prop engines. Do you forsee a return to these. They're definitely louder. But do they need less energy?
No, they consume less fuel but not less energy. They need less fuel because these aircraft are lighter than jets and for short distances they are more efficient.
Will there be a back to the roots in that case?
Today in our area of study, that's what is happening. I remember I travelled once from Paris to Nice in propeller plane for business. At my side there was a French businessman with whom I chatted. When we landed he took a look at the propellers and said: "Don't tell me your firm produced this old junk!" I remember thinking that the flight was so quiet and relaxing, one could not tell that we were flying with propellers. Propellers are a good product, it's not old junk, but he perceived it as such. Nobody really wants to fly with turbo props anymore. But maybe we need to change their minds for short distance travel.
Could the future hold something like a hybrid aircraft?
A zeppelin is a nice technological toy but it had very high energy consumption. There have been projects like this but none have received backing.
Will the form of the planes change? Will this help from the aerodynamic point of view?
The form is not based on economic or environmental matters, there are other concerns.
How can planes be made lighter?
There are two trends in this area, both involve the extensive use of composite materials either carbon fiber or aggressive alloys of aluminum. The concerns of using such materials though are in the repair: it's amazing how easily an aircraft can get damaged at an airport. Repairing composite structures is much more complicated than repairing an aluminum structure. With composite aircrafts, whole parts have to be changed. So in the end, you need more energy to fabricate the new parts. This raises the question as to whether composites still end up better on the life cycle assessment considering this aspect. And I believe that yes, environmentally, there is an advantage. The product itself is lighter and consumes less energy.
Can the air industry learn from the car industry?
I think so, more in terms of processing. We, for instance, have implemented changes in the industrial process thanks to advisors from the automobile industry.
More on the 39th St Gallen Symposium
Photo of Maurício Novis Botelho courtesy of 39th St Gallen Symposium website