The people behind the largest aircraft engine in the world –– The Blueprint

We caught up with Rolls-Royce to talk about what this means for aviation.
Alice Cooke
  • The UltraFan demonstrator engine was recently moved from the build workshop to Testbed 80 

  • It will be operated using 100 percent Sustainable Aviation Fuel

  • Rolls-Royce says this technology is eminently scalable

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.

Construction of the Rolls-Royce UltraFan® technology demonstrator – the largest aircraft engine in the world – is now complete and testing is underway. 

The company said a significant program milestone was reached when the demonstrator engine was moved from the build workshop to Testbed 80 in Derby, U.K., where it was mounted in order to begin testing.

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The first test of the demonstrator is expected to take place early next year and will be operated using 100 percent Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF.) And it could be the answer to the air industry’s problems… airlines have, after all, committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but without any clear plan as to how they’re going to get there.

UltraFan features several revolutionary innovations that increase fuel efficiency, reduce emissions and improve sustainability. Rolls-Royce says the technology could also be used to improve the efficiency and sustainability of present in-service engines.

The fan in the UltraFan demonstration is 140 inches (3.56 meters) in diameter, and it uses 25 percent less fuel than the first generation of Trent engines. It combines a brand-new engine design with a set of technologies that the company says will make air travel more sustainable for decades.

As to the impetus behind this, Rolls-Royce said it is pushing ahead with its new greener engine, because “airlines will need it in the ongoing post-pandemic recovery” even as new technologies catch up.

Because it won’t have escaped your notice that COVID-19 wasn’t very kind to airlines. In fact, it sent aviation into something of a tailspin: passenger numbers slumped, finances collapsed and demand for planes has slowed down dramatically (and in some cases even halted).

Alan Newby, Director of Aerospace Technology and Future Programmes at Rolls-Royce, says UltraFan “will reduce fuel burn by 10 percent compared with Rolls’ most efficient current models”.

He adds: “It’s the right solution pre-pandemic and it’s still the right solution now even as the world goes to look at more green solutions.”

But in the shorter term, UltraFan’s path is slightly less certain. Rolls-Royce’s outgoing CEO Warren East says that once testing of a demonstrator finishes (which is what’s happening at the moment) the project will be paused until a new aircraft arrives.

When the UltraFan project first started, both Airbus and Boeing were planning to develop new jets, but both these projects are looking a little less certain now – hence the pause. 

But, somewhat optimistically perhaps, Newby adds that by the end of testing, which he thinks will be either this year or in 2023, things could well have changed: “If we see that application on the horizon, then we’ll carry on, if not, then we’ll pause.”

The reason for continuing, he says, is that if a new plane gets scheduled to fly by 2030, the UltraFan program would “need to ramp up fairly soon to meet customer demand.”

UltraFan alternatives

Newby acknowledges that there are other technologies that offer greener solutions. Airbus, for example, is developing hydrogen-powered aircraft, and there are also electric models in development. 

In fact, Rolls-Royce itself is experimenting with new technologies. It recently flew a single-seater battery electric plane at 345mph (555km/h) and last month it carried out the world’s first test of an aircraft engine using hydrogen. 

But Rolls-Royce only employs about a dozen people who deal directly with hydrogen, and the technology is far from advanced. 

Despite this though, he maintains that the bulk of medium or longer routes will still be powered by “UltraFan-type products.”

The SAF element

UltraFan is designed to run on normal jet fuel but also sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is fuel produced from waste products, which further boosts the engine’s low carbon credentials.

CEO Warren East says: “There will be demand for SAF for at least 60 years. Relying on hydrogen is not an option. We can’t, as a sector, wait for hydrogen. What if we got that wrong?”

The only way is up

Rolls-Royce says this technology is eminently scalable, and it hopes its further development will open up a new market for it on single aisle jets, which would be profitable as these sell at higher volumes than their larger counterparts, which is what the current model is designed for. 

The underpinning technologies behind UltraFan’s development are part of a $686 million project, which started in 2014.

“It’s challenging times for the company at the moment so having something like this is massively exciting for all of us,” concludes Newby.

So, what’s next?

Chris Cholerton, President of Rolls-Royce Civil Aerospace, says: “Seeing the UltraFan demonstrator come together and getting ready for test in Testbed 80 is a great way to end the year.

“We have all been waiting for this moment, which is such an important milestone for the program and for the team who have worked on it.

“The next stage will be to see UltraFan run for the first time on 100 percent sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in 2023, proving the technology is ready to support more sustainable flight in the future.”

This story first appeared in our subscriber-only weekly Blueprint newsletter. Receive exclusive interviews and analyses like this, direct to your inbox every Sunday, by subscribing to IE+.