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SUMS Professor flies high with Boeing and LCA research

Lenny Koh AREC

Professor Lenny Koh, chair in operations management at Sheffield University Management School, has played a significant part in a study showing that lighter planes are the future.

The interdisciplinary study, involving academics from the engineering and management fields, showed that a global fleet of composite planes could reduce carbon emissions by up to 15 per cent, but the lighter planes alone will not enable the aviation industry to meet its emissions targets, according to new research.

The study, by the Universities of Sheffield, Cambridge and UCL (University College London), is the first to carry out a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA) of a composite plane, such as the Boeing Dreamliner 787 or Airbus 350, and extrapolate the results to the global fleet.

Professor Koh’s contribution to the study was built around the LCA methodology, covering manufacture, use and disposal, using publicly available information on the Boeing Dreamliner 787 fuselage and from the supply chain – such as the energy usage of the robots that construct the planes. She said: “This research has demonstrated the significant value of LCA methodology for Boeing. It has evidenced the robustness of this approach to assess the environmental impact of new materials such as composite in a very complex product supply chains (in this context for the Boeing Dreamliner 787).

“Sheffield has world leading expertise in this domain and this project is an example of how we work with world leading industry to provide LCA empirical analysis. It has proven to be extremely valuable and impactful for the aviation industry and their supply chain.”

Research found that emissions during the manufacture of composite planes are over double those of aluminium planes, but because the lighter aircraft use significantly less fuel these are offset after a few international flights. Over its lifetime, a composite plane creates up to 20 per cent fewer CO2 emissions. The study – published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment – estimated that by 2050, composite planes could reduce emissions from the global fleet by 14-15 per cent relative to a fleet that maintains its existing aluminium-based configuration.  In light of a projected four-fold increase in global air traffic through 2050, this material change could avoid 500million tonnes of CO2 emissions in 2050 alone, a value that roughly corresponds to current emission levels.

Professor Koh is director of the Centre for Energy, Environment and Sustainability and the Logistics and Supply Chain Management research centre, both within the Management School. She is also leading the Advanced Resource Efficiency Centre (AREC), which has been formed as a facility to promote collaboration between industry and academics who can help introduce resource efficiency and sustainability across supply chains. It also offers a platform for access to policy makers and focuses on four main industries: Advanced Materials and Manufacturing; Energy and Nuclear; Water; and Agritech/Food.

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