Could Embraer’s Turboprop Answer US Airlines’ CO2 Problem?

Embraer’s return to the turboprop market is an interesting move, but one which could solve a number of problems, particularly for US-based airlines. Currently reliant on inefficient regional jets, switching some operations to turboprops could be an instant win for the climate agenda.

new embraer turboprop
The Embraer turboprop could be a climate win for US airlines. Photo: Embraer

The role for a turboprop in the United States

Embraer’s new turboprop has got the aviation world hot under the collar. The turboprop industry has not seen a new clean-sheet design for several decades, and the potential for Embraer to disrupt this market is strong.  Speaking to Rodrigo Silva e Souza, VP of Marketing and Strategy at Embraer, he explained how the market for the turboprop in the United States just got a whole lot better. He said,

“At the beginning of this year, there was a change in the administration in the US from Trump to Biden. That really increased the importance of environmental discussions at airlines.”

US airlines have always been on the ball when it comes to sustainability, but with a new administration came a new impetus. Within hours of being sworn in Biden returned the United States to the Paris Climate Accord, demonstrating his commitment to maintaining those carbon reduction goals set out five years ago.

United CRJ200
Switching out small regional jets in favour of a new generation turboprop could save airlines huge levels of CO2. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

With a renewed focus on the sustainability agenda, US airlines will inevitably be looking for ways to reduce their CO2 emissions. We’ve already seen airlines stepping up to use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) in the US, and airlines have already begun outlining their goals for achieving net zero. Switching some regional routes to turboprop operations would be an easy win.

CO2 reductions of up to 90%

The ability of turboprops to operate with a lower carbon footprint than their jet-based rivals has been well known for years. For example, according to ICCT research, the ATR 72-600 has an average CO2 output of 125 g per revenue passenger kilometer, and the Dash 8-400 around 130 g/RPK. This compares to 150 g/CO2/RPK for the CRJ 900, for example.

But these turboprops are old technology, and something new and improved could knock it out of the park when it comes to reducing emissions. Silva e Souza noted that,

“We have calculated, based on the current network that we see in the United States, between 20 and 40% lower fuel burn, depending on the sector.”

American ERj145LR
The aircraft would save between 20 and 40% of CO2 emissions instantly. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

That saving directly translates to a reduction in CO2. To compare it to the CRJ 900, for example, that could take its CO2 emissions down to as low as 90 g/CO2/RPK. But Embraer wants to take it even further than this, bringing these aircraft to market already equipped for the new era of greener travel. Silva e Souza said,

“These airplanes would come to market already compatible with the use of 100% sustainable aviation fuel.”

The introduction of SAF would serve to further lower the CO2 footprint of the turboprop, potentially taking its entire CO2 elimination to a staggering 90%, as Rodrigo explained,

“It would depend, of course, on the type of SAF that is being used, but emissions could be reduced by 80%. And then from the remaining 20% we can reduce between 20 and 40%. So, pretty much we can say we are looking at a reduction close to 90% of the current co2 emissions.”

Nestes biofuel truck
Adding SAF into the mix could reduce CO2 emissions even further. Photo: Neste

That’s pretty impressive for a start, and Embraer has also done something clever with its designs for the plane too. The turboprop will have its engines at the back, opening up the possibility for the aircraft to be powered by hydrogen in the future, with the rear fuselage presenting the perfect space to store the spherical tanks required.

What’s next for the turboprop project?

In terms of the timeline for the turboprop to make an appearance, Embraer is keenly working on developing the partnerships required to produce the aircraft. Notably, discussions are underway with all the major engine manufacturers to find the right powerplants for this new generation plane.

Embraer turboprop
Discussions on powerplant choice are underway. Photo: Embraer

Rodrigo noted that, although the engine may be based on something existing, it would be a bespoke design. He said,

“The engine for this would be a new generation. They may base their design on the existing engine, or in some cases it could be 100%, new. Either way, it will be a new generation engine with new design and new materials to deliver the efficiency that we are looking for.”

Embraer is targeting an official launch of the aircraft in the second half of next year, with a prototype ready for certification by around 2025. While this might seem like some way off, with all the technology and new generation touches the planemaker wants to pack into its new turboprop, there’s still a lot to be done before we will see it fly.