Jet engines that run on ammonia rather than kerosene under development

Jet engines for passenger planes that can run on environmentally friendly ammonia rather than fossil fuels are being developed in a new venture involving an Oxford-based company and a government agency.

Ammonia produces harmless water vapour hydrogen and nitrogen as by-products rather than carbon dioxide and could help Britain reach its clean air travel aims years ahead of schedule.

The joint venture is being set up by Reaction Engines with FTSE 250 investor IP Group and the state-backed Science and Technology Facilities Council. A spokesman declined to comment on the amount of start-up funding available. 

It aims to get the technology ready for use by aircraft makers and ship builders as part of the transition away from fossil fuels, such as jet fuel kerosene. Aviation and maritime account for 5pc of the world’s carbon emissions. 

The consortium said the technology would make it possible to achieve net zero in short-haul air travel by 2030 – two decades ahead of the Government’s target.

Ammonia is commonly manufactured for use in fertilisers. The process is not environmentally friendly because it normally uses methane, but ammonia can be made using carbon-free processes such as using electrical currents.

The new venture will work on developing engines based on “cracker reactors”. These split ammonia into nitrogen and hydrogen, with the hydrogen then fed into a combustion engine to generate thrust. 

Ammonia engines could offer an alternative to electric planes, which could suffer from limited range. Reaction Engines said ammonia-powered aircraft could be initially capable of ranges of 1,250 miles. 

Professor Bill David, of the University of Oxford and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said ammonia-based fuels were able to “mimic fossil fuel performance and offer affordable retrofitted energy solutions”.

It could also be used instead of hydrogen fuel. While hydrogen fuel cells are also being proposed as an alternative to jet fuel, they require a complete redesign of modern aircraft. Ammonia, in contrast, can be stored in a similar way to jet fuel.

Reaction Engines has been developing new jet engine designs. Its “Sabre” engines are designed for use on hypersonic missiles and single-use-to-orbit space planes. 

Privately owned Reaction Engines is supported by the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency and has had investment from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and Boeing.

The UK aims to have a tenth of flights powered by sustainable fuel by 2030 in a drive being supported by £180m of taxpayer funds.

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