Every industry across all sectors and continents is “racing against time” as they seek to transform their business from carbon-heavy, fossil fuel-driven operations to clean, green alternative energy.
Even the petroleum industry now acknowledges the necessity of countering the effects of climate change to prevent the planet from warming to a level that will threaten all life as we know it.
The aviation industry is no exception. Airline executives and those business models that support and form flying infrastructure are scrambling to navigate from carbon-driven implements to carbon-neutral systems.
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GSE a Major Area of Shift
GSE is Ground Support Equipment and comprises dozens if not hundreds, of vehicles, tools and machines that service aircraft in numerous ways. That includes many operations around airports, from luggage transportation tugs to cargo loaders and conveyor belts – to name just a few.
The Federal Aviation Administration explains that:
“Ground-based carbon emissions are produced by gasoline and diesel fuel for airport vehicles and ground support equipment (GSE) … that includes fossil fuel for heating & electricity … jet fuel for auxiliary power provided by APUs (Auxiliary Power Units) that fuel aircraft at gates and other sources.”
Switching to Electric Alternatives
Consider an airport baggage tractor-trailer unit. This vehicle is now mostly powered by gasoline, diesel fuel or propane. The technology exists, however, to drive these same vehicles with equivalent power using electric engines. If the batteries for these vehicles can be sourced from renewable electricity sources, such as wind and solar, the reduction of carbon production would be significant.
A major category of GSE is the Hydraulic Power Unit (HPU). Called “mules” by professionals, HPUs assist ground crews in performing key aircraft maintenance operations. HPUs are a complex classification of equipment that is vital and at the heart of what ground crew do every day to support the business of air travel.
A hydraulic power unit enables airplanes and jets to operate better, stronger and faster. HPUs transfer power via the circulation of a controlled and pressurized fluid to a motor that converts this to mechanical energy. That process drives divergent functions.
While hydraulic systems are complex, the bottom line for our discussion is that they present opportunities to reduce carbon emissions by replacing traditional models, some of which are powered by diesel and gas motors. Many kinds of hydraulic power units are already electric. However, there are large numbers of systems that could be made to work without the need for fossil fuels.
Adopting GSE Infrastructure a Lynchpin of Change
Experts say that the biggest hurdle in front of GSE electrification is the current lack of infrastructure to power up all kinds of systems. For example, airport ground crews need easy access to several chargers and distinct charging slots. These all need to be positioned where they can be easily accessed.
Providers of green GSE implements say they need to help move their customers toward ground operation infrastructures and “standardize around electric GSE.” That must include various and diverse types of power systems, including batteries, hydrogen fuel cells, hybrid systems with onboard generators, onboard chargers that are compatible with 400Hz – and much more.
The Hope of Hydrogen
Hydrogen-generated power is among the most exciting prospects for the aviation industry. Indeed, the first airplanes powered by jet engines fueled by carbon-free hydrogen have already been successfully flown in test flights.
But hydrogen may also be huge for GSE. Prototypes for a hydrogen hybrid powertrain are already being tested for GSE items. For example, hydrogen vehicles that serve passengers with reduced mobility are being developed by the Industrial Electronics Laboratory at Italy’s University of Cassino.
Hydrogen is the “best choice for at-scale decarbonization” because it is an inexhaustible power alternative that can be derived from multiple sources and produce high-energy power.
Why Can It Make a Difference?
Consider a recent study of ground operations at London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the largest and busiest in the world. It was determined that if the groundwork activity using carbon-based energy could be reduced by just 20%, the result would be a reduction of 100,000 tons of CO2 per year.