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5 Questions for... Nicole Dreyer-Langlet

Less “could” and more “do!”

Nicole Dreyer-Langlet is Vice President R&T Airbus in Germany and member of the management board of Airbus Operations GmbH as well as new Senator of Helmholtz. (Credit: Airbus)

As vice president and member of the management board at Airbus in Germany, and Helmholtz's new senator, Nicole Dreyer-Langlet wants to advance emission-free flying and forge alliances between science and industry.

Ms. Dreyer-Langlet, you have been working in the aviation industry for 25 years; in terms of climate protection, the industry must now radically change. Looking into the future, how will we fly in 2050? Will we be able to board a plane without a guilty conscience?

Yes, that is my vision. We will then board an airplane powered by hydrogen as a matter of course, so we won't have to worry about whether flying is harming the environment and climate, and the question of how often we fly will no longer be so decisive. However, it is already clear that air traffic here in Europe will soon no longer be as significant as it is today. This is because fleets are growing elsewhere: 39,000 new aircraft will enter service by 2040, most of them in the growing markets of Asia and South America, but also in Africa. People there now earn more and want to travel the world by air. To ensure that this does not have a negative impact on the climate, it is important that we rapidly reduce aircraft emissions.

How is this to be achieved, given that air travel still accounts for around three percent of the global CO2 budget?

Our goal is to have aircraft in service from 2035 that use green hydrogen either in fuel cells or corresponding gas turbines and thus no longer emit CO2. The technological challenges for this are indeed enormous. For example, we need to develop completely new types of fuel cells. Today's variants are already powerful enough to power trucks, but for aviation, of course, we need completely different dimensions, and we're doing a lot of research on that. Other teams are working on tanks: For aircraft to be able to run on hydrogen, it must be cooled to minus 253 degrees Celsius, which is the only temperature at which it has the right state of aggregation. We can build on the foundations laid by the European Ariane launcher, for example. But it makes a huge difference whether I fly into orbit once within ten minutes, or whether I travel between Hamburg and Munich ten times a day as such a cycle places completely different demands on tanks and materials. And we also have to reorganize supply on the ground: The new aircraft must also be able to refuel with green hydrogen. To this end, we are thinking of so-called hydrogen hubs: Hydrogen stations all over the world that take on entirely new roles. Some locations will certainly be in the immediate vicinity of a hydrogen park because the conditions there are ideal for producing green hydrogen and this is conceivable in New Zealand or Australia, for example. Other locations, on the other hand, will have to source the hydrogen in a decentralized manner. The hydrogen infrastructure can then spread from such lighthouse projects.

For projects of this kind, Airbus also cooperates time and again with Helmholtz research centers, especially the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

Yes, our teams have been in close, trusting exchange for many years. For example, we have just made great progress with research into alternative fuels. These are important as an intermediate step until we put aircraft that fly on hydrogen into service. SAFs (sustainable aviation fuels) are a good solution here as they produce around 80 percent less CO2 and can be easily mixed with conventional kerosene. We are conducting intensive research on this with DLR. Together, we are also developing ever better flight simulations and working on optimizing flight routes: For example, if aircraft climb and descend optimally during takeoff and landing, they emit significantly fewer emissions.

Since the end of 2022, you have also been involved in the Helmholtz Senate. What do you want to focus on in this body?

I am very much committed to Helmholtz's objective of protecting our livelihoods. With this in mind, I will of course be more involved in the Senate in the field of aeronautics and space. But it is also important to me to exchange ideas with other research areas and industries. Aerospace, for example, has many very mature technologies to offer that could drive other industries forward. Conversely, aerospace could learn from other industries, for example, in leaner certification procedures. The requirements for aircraft are still very high, and rightly so. But perhaps the processes can still be simplified without compromising on safety. If we want to meet the climate targets, we have to speed up the approval process, both for new research projects and for new aircraft models. There is no other way to achieve climate change in aviation. We need to move away from the subjunctive: Less “could” and more “do!”.

Have you ever considered a career in science yourself?

No, I can get deeply involved in a subject and want to understand our equipment and models in all their details. But personally, I have always been more interested in implementation. That's why I became an industrial engineer, and my father already worked as an engineer so I grew up in an environment with a great openness to technology. And then there were my two big brothers, who were interested in math and physics: That spurred me on. Today, I'm happy to pass on this enthusiasm, especially to womenas we urgently need more of them in technical professions. But I always notice that they are usually much more self-critical than men. That's certainly a good quality in part because it spurs us on. But it can also have a paralyzing effect: Just a few days ago, I met a group of very talented women with a lot of experience in solving problems, and yet they doubted themselves and hesitated before taking the next career step. That's why professional networks are so important: We women need to encourage each other! This is really a subject close to my heart. I myself had a great mentor who encouraged me to keep goingwhich is why I now tell younger female colleagues how I manage to balance family and career, or sometimes give them a loving push to have the courage to take a step forward! I think we women have to set an example for each other.

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