Green-sky thinking for propulsion and power

Engine blades_Whittle Lab

A rapid way of turning ideas into new technologies in the aviation and power industries has been developed at Cambridge’s Whittle Laboratory.

Here, Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle, describes how researchers plan to scale the process to cover around 80% of the UK’s future aerodynamic technology needs:

We’re seeing a transformational change in the propulsion and power sectors. Aviation and power generation have brought huge benefits – connecting people across the world and providing safe, reliable electricity to billions – but reducing their carbon emissions is now urgently needed.

Electrification is one way to decarbonise, certainly for small and medium-sized aircraft. In fact, more than 70 companies are planning a first flight of electric air vehicles by 2024. For large aircraft, no alternative to the jet engine currently exists, but radical new aircraft architectures, such as those developed by the Cambridge-MIT Silent Aircraft Initiative and the NASA N+3 project, show the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions by around 70%.

A common thread in these technologies and those needed for renewable power is their reliance on efficient, reliable turbomachinery – a technology that has been central to our work for the past 50 years. Currently we’re working on applications that include the development of electric and hybrid-electric aircraft, the generation of power from the tides and low-grade heat, like solar energy, and hydrogen-based engines.

We’re also working on existing technologies as a way of reducing the carbon emissions, like wind turbines, and developing the next generation of jet engines such as Rolls-Royce’s UltraFan engine, which will enable CO2 emission reductions of 25% by 2025. A great example is Dr Chez Hall’s research on a potential replacement for the 737. This futuristic aircraft architecture involves an electrical propulsion system being embedded in the aircraft fuselage, allowing up to 15% reduction in fuel burn.

A key element of meeting the decarbonisation challenge is to accelerate technology development. And so, over the past five years, our primary focus has been the process itself – we've been asking ‘can we develop technology faster and cheaper?’ The answer is yes – at least 10 times faster and 10 times cheaper. Our solution is to merge the digital and physical systems involved. In 2017, we undertook a pioneering trial of a new method of technology development. A team of academic researchers and industrial designers were embedded in the Whittle and given four technologies to develop.

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Image Credit: Whittle Lab

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

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