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“The aircraft powered 100% by alternative fuel is achievable in less than five years”

Lhe latest list of patent applicants from the National Intellectual Property Institute (INPI) put the Safran group in first place for the first time. The aeronautical engine manufacturer has thus dethroned the automotive giant Stellantis, with two patents (1,037 on the Safran side, 1,035 on the Stellantis side) for the year 2021. Point spoke with Éric Dalbiès, the innovation director of this champion, unknown to the general public, who equips Airbus and Boeing planes with engines. His goal ? Developing products that will make the aircraft of tomorrow 30% less CO emitting2 than those of today.

Le Point: Safran is now the leading patent filer in France. What are your priorities ?

Eric Dalbies: This first place is the result of our patent filings for the period from July 2019 to June 2020. It demonstrates the consistency of our policy of innovation and intellectual property protection. Of course, we are proud to be in the first row, but the most important thing for me is our presence in the top 3 for already ten years. This year, we are also the first French and the 33e global applicant, all sectors combined, according to the latest classification from the European Patent Office. And our inventive activity focuses in particular on technologies to decarbonize aviation.

In terms of patents, you speak of “research and technology” (R&T) rather than R&D. Why ?

In our vocabulary, R&D concerns the development phase of a product. Safran has developed a great deal of new equipment over the past twenty years as aircraft manufacturers and helicopter manufacturers have renewed their ranges of aircraft: in the field of medium-haul aircraft, for example, the Airbus A320Neo, equipped with our LEAP engines, has made its first commercial flight in 2016. Now that these new aircraft have entered service, we can focus on the upstream phase of R&D, which we call “research and technology” (R&T). The next generation of aircraft will be subject to program launch decisions by 2026-2027 for entry into service in the mid-2030s. We therefore still have four years to accelerate the maturation of R&T. Given our climate commitments, we are going to have to reduce aircraft fuel consumption by 30%, which is twice as ambitious as the gain we managed to obtain on the previous generation.

Since 2020, Safran has devoted between 500 and 600 million euros per year to R&T, compared to 400 to 450 million euros before the Covid.

Did you ease off on R&T during the Covid-19 crisis?

It took us three months to adapt, in particular to set up telework protocols. But our R T activities are among those that have been taken over the fastest. Since 2020, Safran has devoted between 500 and 600 million euros per year to it, compared to 400 to 450 million euros before the Covid. Added to this are around 200 million euros in public subsidies from the French State or the European Union. What is remarkable is that the government has put 1.5 billion euros of public funds on the table to support the civil aeronautical research effort during the health crisis. This money was paid between 2020 and 2022.

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What will the successor to your LEAP engine, which you produce with GE and which powers the latest medium-haul aircraft from Airbus and Boeing, look like?

With our partner GE, we have launched a technology demonstration program called RISE (Revolutionary Innovation for Sustainable Engine) which prefigures the next generation of engines. It is distinguished by a very large propeller 4 meters in diameter, twice the diameter of the current LEAP engine. There is no nacelle surrounding this propeller; we speak of a non-streamlined architecture, or “open fan”. It is therefore larger than its predecessor, but the blades are lighter and the engine offers better propulsion efficiency. We have also introduced a maximum of composite materials, which are lighter and more durable at high temperatures. Finally, it embeds electric motors to assist the gas turbine during certain phases of operation – a bit like in a hybrid car.

Will it be powered by biofuel or hydrogen?

To reduce the consumption of our products, which is our main objective, we have two levers: first, to reduce consumption and mass, because every kilo gained reduces emissions; then, running our engines on alternative fuels. This is a real challenge for us, because until now our engines have always run on kerosene. Among these alternative fuels, there are, on the one hand, biofuels, which are derived from biomass, and, on the other hand, synthetic fuels, which are obtained by recombining CO2 captured with emission-free hydrogen produced. Finally, there is a third way: that of propulsion with hydrogen alone. Obviously, it’s less easy for us to work on three fuel hypotheses at the same time.

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At this point, you seem to favor biofuels and synthetic fuels…

Switching our products to sustainable fuel, biofuel or synthetic fuel, means carrying out precise work, in particular on combustion, lubrication and seal sealing. But the effort is on a reasonable scale since our existing technologies are already close to the technological level required to switch to these new fuels. Current engines are already certified to fly with a mixture of 50% alternative fuel and 50% kerosene. 100% extension is technically achievable in less than five years.

And hydrogen?

It’s completely different! Indeed, the equipment that will have to run on hydrogen does not yet exist. We need to review all the systems, the sealing technologies, the purging of the circuits when the engines are turned off… Hydrogen is both very volatile and very flammable. As on a rocket, it will also have to be stored in liquid form, because if it is stored in a gaseous state, it will take up too much space. And, even liquid, hydrogen is four times larger than kerosene. So we will lose capacity.

At what point ?

The maximum, according to the consensus of the profession, for an airliner running on hydrogen, will be the size of an A320 with a range of around 1,500 nautical miles, i.e. say 2,800 kilometers, so not even the New York-Los Angeles distance. We will not be able to make long-haul hydrogen planes, even at a distant horizon. It will also be necessary to review all the airport refueling infrastructures. And airports that handle both short-medium-haul and long-haul aircraft will likely need to maintain dual infrastructure: one for fuel, conventional and/or sustainable, and another for hydrogen. Will it make economic sense for them? Our job is to ensure that the technology is not limiting, but we know that the applications for hydrogen, while promising, will be limited.

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At the end of 2021, the airline industry set itself the goal of reaching “zero emissions” by 2050. Are we moving at the right pace?

It must ! Before Covid, global aviation emitted 900 million tonnes of CO annually2, or about 2.5% of global emissions. If we do nothing, we will reach 2,300 million tonnes in 2050. Our objective is zero. How to do ? We have two big levers. The first is improving energy efficiency through technology; it will count for 30 to 40% of the effort. The second is to replace kerosene with new fuels, and have a fraction of aircraft running on hydrogen. Are we going fast enough? We have designed a compatible calendar, but we must not fall behind. And beware: energy companies will also have to move quickly on alternative fuels. If the production of fuels is not there, we will not succeed.

We will not take biofuel if its production leads to deforestation or competes with agricultural land for human food.

The production of biofuels is not always very ecological…

We will not take biofuel if its production leads to deforestation or competes with agricultural land for human food. We must therefore accelerate on synthetic fuels, the development of which begins by subtracting CO2 in the air. But, for the moment, things are not progressing at the desired pace. We have to speed up. This is why Safran has taken the lead in a European Commission initiative for sustainable fuels for two sectors that are difficult to decarbonise: aviation and heavy shipping.

As these new fuels are more expensive to produce, will plane tickets be too?

We may be in a world where flying will be more expensive, indeed. But the public authorities will have their role to play in promoting the development of these fuels.

Could this new technological deal allow a new player to emerge to compete with you on aircraft engines, like SpaceX which, coming from nowhere, has imposed itself in ten years on space launchers?

Yes, but on small aircraft. I don’t see any new players arriving on medium-haul aircraft, because the barrier to entry is very high. In 2008, China decided to launch a third major aircraft manufacturer in the world with Comac. But, to create its first short-medium-haul, the C919, Comac had to buy major systems from Western aeronautical players: landing gear, nacelle, engine, avionics, auxiliary power unit… And the plane is not still not certified. It is extremely difficult to fly an aircraft certified for passenger transport.

Beyond engines, Safran develops equipment such as landing gear and aircraft seats (since the acquisition of Zodiac Aerospace). What are the areas for improvement of these products?

As for the landing gear, we are working on making it lighter, of course, and on electric taxiing. This saves fuel by avoiding turning on the main engines. We are also working on reducing the noise level of the engines. From the CFM56 engine to the LEAP, we gained three decibels, in other words the noise was halved. On the next generation, we will also make a gain of the same order. We are also working on fuel cells capable of managing electricity on board. It does not emit CO2 and makes no noise. Regarding cabin products, we are working on hygiene, recycling, connectivity and private spaces. We are therefore developing coatings that trap viruses and are made of recyclable materials. As well as seats and luggage compartments equipped with sensors which will automatically give indications to flight personnel, for example on the level of filling of a compartment.

To convince young people to turn to aeronautics, my strategy consists of telling them about the work the company is carrying out to respond to the climate emergency.

Many young engineers choose to focus primarily on finance or tech. How do you attract them to your home?

We are in a talent war, it is true, because France does not train enough engineers in relation to its needs. There is a deficit of around 20,000 engineers per year. And then there is, in fact, competition between sectors. To convince young people to turn to aeronautics, my strategy consists of telling them about the work the company is carrying out to respond to the climate emergency. I explain to them that 75% of the R&T expenditure that Safran self-finances goes directly to decarbonization, which often surprises them. To decarbonize aviation, we need their talents. Rather than remaining spectators of this change, we offer them the possibility of being its actors.

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