New technology for zero-emission electric passenger aircraft

Published Oct 26, 2021

New Zealand researchers lead by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington have teamed up with Air New Zealand and Wellington UniVentures to create technology that will make zero-emission electric passenger aircraft a reality.

Under the three-way memorandum of understanding, Robinson Research Institute and Wellington UniVentures will be working on a programme to develop superconducting electric motors for the global aviation industry.

Air New Zealand has a goal of net zero emissions by 2050, and the electrification of international air travel is an area of global focus to reduce carbon emissions and energy use. The agreement is a step towards the airline’s goals of net zero emissions and putting low carbon aircraft on shorter domestic and regional flights in the next decade. Air New Zealand will provide a strategic advisor from its senior management team to help steer the programme, as well as providing flight data and industry know how to the research teams.

Te Herenga Waka and Robinson Research Institute have recently been awarded a research grant from MBIE to lead a programme called AETP, the Advanced Energy for Transport Platform. This programme brings together scientists and engineers from New Zealand universities including the University of Auckland, AUT and the University of Canterbury to look at three main challenge areas—superconducting electric motors, the cryogenic systems needed to keep them cool and the electronics needed to supply them with power. As well as New Zealand Universities, collaborating researchers in Korea, Japan, the USA and the UK are joining the programme to create a truly international science effort.

Wellington UniVentures is also playing an active role in the programme, helping to identify pathways for getting the results of research out into industry in the form of products and companies that will have a real impact on the future of air travel.

Professor Rod Badcock at Robinson Research Institute leads the AETP Programme. “Superconductors are the cornerstone of what we’ve been doing here at Gracefield for the past 20 years,” he says.

“An all-electric aircraft is the ‘killer app’ that will bring them into the mainstream. To create electric motors powerful enough and light enough to propel an airliner across the Pacific will require levels of performance that only superconductors can achieve.”

“MBIE has invested in us for a research programme spanning seven years and we have brought together a team of researchers from across New Zealand and internationally to work together on this challenge. We need deep connections with our partners in industry if the research is going to have a real impact. Air New Zealand is our source for real-world flight data and aviation industry considerations that inform all our work.”

Anne Barnett, CEO at Wellington UniVentures echoes these sentiments. “Research at Te Herenga Waka is always focused on finding answers to the big questions in science and society. Our role at Wellington UniVentures is to take these solutions and turn them into products or start-ups or partnerships that get them out into the world at large. To get them to the point of providing real-world benefits for New Zealand and beyond.”

“In this case, the world needs solutions to carbon emissions and fast! It’s important that we start thinking now about who needs to be around the table, so that we can make this a success story that New Zealand can continue to be a part of. We need to be sure that investors and industry know what’s coming—what the scale of this opportunity really is. The partnership with Air New Zealand will be a massive part of this and we’re looking forward to see these solutions take flight.”