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Will the first climate-neutral aircraft take off in 2035?

Flying is a burden on the climate. But this could change in the future. Thanks to lighter materials, better aerodynamics and more efficient engines, the energy revolution could succeed in the skies. We ask Volker Thum, Managing Director of the German Aerospace Industries Association (BDLI), where we stand – and where the journey will take us.


  • Sustainability

  • Future

Volker Thum, will planes be more environmentally friendly than trains in the future?

Yes, because we're pursuing the goal of a zero-emission aircraft and have concrete plans for this ambitious goal. Engineers in Germany and Europe are already working on the aircraft of the future with the first specific designs set to be in place by 2028, and we want to build the first climate-neutral aircraft by 2035. This is how we can and want to achieve climate neutrality in aviation by 2050 and how the energy revolution will succeed in the skies.

« The aircraft of the future is digital and climate neutral. »

You work for the German Aerospace Industries Association (BDLI). What are the key objectives of the association?

The BDLI is the voice of the German aerospace industry. We represent a strategically important high-tech industry in which Germany and Europe play a leading role worldwide. In many respects, this industry provides Germany as a business hub with a sustainable boost as a driver of jobs, turnover and technology. We also have partners and suppliers in Switzerland, such as RUAG and the Liebherr Group. The Liebherr subsidiary Liebherr-Aerospace Lindenberg is an important German supplier. Our member companies are already working on the aircraft of the future: this will be digital and climate neutral.

The BDLI is the voice of the German aerospace industry. We represent a strategically important high-tech industry in which Germany and Europe play a leading role worldwide. In many respects, this industry provides Germany as a business hub with a sustaina

We can achieve climate neutrality in aviation if everyone does their bit. After all, the energy revolution in the sky is a challenge that needs to be addressed by society as a whole. Specifically, this means strengthening aerospace research with a focus on climate-neutral air travel and organising and financing a technology demonstrator programme. After all, sustainable aviation fuels have the most promising potential to directly reduce emissions in the short and medium term, as well as in the long haul.

« The energy revolution in the sky is a challenge that needs to be addressed by society as a whole. »

Does synthetically produced kerosene also have advantages in combustion, or only in production?

The combustion of fossil fuels always produces particles that were visible as “soot” in earlier engines. These particles cause contrails and aviation-induced cloud cover. Synthetic fuels can greatly reduce the number of particles and therefore also the impact on the climate.

“Sustainable aviation fuels” – can you explain briefly what these are?

Yes, in principle, this is a really simple process. Sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs, directly ensure climate-neutral operation. Unlike fossil fuels, the energy from the kerosene is obtained from renewable sources. Ideally, the power-to-liquid (PtL) process is used, whereby green hydrogen is generated using electricity from solar or wind power via a process of electrolysis. In a downstream process, this is combined with CO2 to form artificial hydrocarbons from which SAF is produced. SAFs can either be mixed with fossil-based kerosene, or the aircraft can fly just with them. The problem, however, is that SAFs are still not readily available and are currently very expensive. This is why this technology needs to be rapidly industrialised.

« We need a rapid industrialisation of technologies in order to produce enough modern fuels. »

What are the two most important factors for the future, after fuels? Where is the most intensive research being directed?

In addition to fuels, the engines play a key role. We are seeing great progress here too: the latest generations of engine reduce fuel consumption by up to 36% compared to 2000. In addition, new technologies such as 3D printing make it possible to significantly reduce the weight, which directly reduces emissions. New approaches such as winglets, which are specially designed outer wings at the ends of the wings, or shark skin on the fuselage − a surface coating that simulates the skin of a shark − are expected to yield substantial aerodynamic advantages. This means that every new aircraft that replaces an older model is helping the climate. After all, modernisation is the best way to protect the environment.

You read about “quantum technology” in aviation – what is this all about?

Quantum computers are considered to be one of the most groundbreaking technologies of the future. They make it possible to radically reduce computation times. They can be used to perform calculations that conventional computers would sometimes take years to complete. We expect to see significant advances in aviation by using quantum technology, for example in the fields of digital modelling, artificial intelligence, materials research and software development. However, there's still a long way to go before we have a programmable, fault-tolerant quantum computer so it's important to press ahead with and amplify the research and development work in this area.

« Modernisation is the best way to protect the environment. »

You speak for Germany. What's the situation for sustainable aviation on a pan-European or global scale?

That’s true, Germany may well become a hub for climate-neutral air travel, but aviation is an international affair. This is why we're the first industry in the world to commit to climate-neutral growth. We support the Paris Agreement and the UN climate protection solutions for aviation. Global aviation has therefore set itself the goal of "climate-neutral air travel", for which there's a clear “flight plan.”

« We support the Paris Agreement. »

Financial offsetting of emissions remains an important tool – is it a fig leaf based on the principle of indulgences trading?

No, even today offsetting is an important instrument for reducing our carbon footprint. Many technologies for climate-neutral air travel still need to be scalable and available in series production, i.e. capable of growth. Until then, offsetting emissions helps to financially compensate for CO2 emissions. This will no longer be necessary in the long term.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks to achieving the objectives outlined above?

We are working flat out on climate-neutral technologies that can be implemented soon. But this will only succeed if everyone does their bit. Many technologies are simply still too expensive or require a substantial modification of the aircraft. For example, we are committed to the using hydrogen to fuel the aircraft of the future, but this technology requires four times the volume of conventional kerosene yet has the same energy density. That means we have to rethink the entire aircraft. It's a mammoth task – but we’ll make it work, and you and I will be enjoying climate-neutral flying during our lifetimes.


Volker Thum is Managing Director of the German Aerospace Industries Association (BDLI). Before joining BDLI, he managed the Airbus plant in Bremen, the second largest Airbus site in Germany. Prior to this, he held management positions in Toulouse, Stade and Hamburg for the European aircraft manufacturer. Thum graduated from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology with a degree in industrial engineering.

The BDLI represents the interests of the German aerospace industry with around 250 members and 105'000 direct employees. Nearly all strategically important technologies are pooled within the association. Turnover amounts to EUR 31 billion (2020). The primary tasks of the BDLI include communicating with political institutions, authorities, associations and foreign representations in Germany as well as a host of member services in Germany and abroad. The association is the brand owner of ILA Berlin – the trade fair for "Innovation and Leadership in Aerospace" (which will next be held in June 2022). www.bdli.de

Volker Thum

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