The Stargate project is an example of how airport operators can work with a large number of stakeholders on various projects to improve the sustainability of aviation operations at their gateways. One of those involved, Brussels Airport Company, explains what might be achievable with the different links in the aviation chain working together for a greener future
The Stargate project was officially launched in November 2021, with funding assistance provided by the European Union as part of the latter’s European Green Deal programme to drive the EU towards climate neutrality. Stargate now encompasses a consortium of no less than 21 partners working with airport operators like Brussels Airport Company to make aviation and airports across Europe more sustainable.
The first year of the Stargate project involved a large amount of preparatory work (including tender procedures and market surveys), as well as the first on-site applications. These developments included the deployment of electric ground handling equipment, while electric hydrant fuel dispensers were tested and a first version of the ‘digital twin’ of the four participating airports was also created.
Brussels Airport is acting as project leader on Stargate, but the initiative also involves three other European air gateways as well as airlines, mobility specialists, educational and research bodies, and local authorities. The full list of those involved takes in: Athens International Airport; Budapest Airport; Aéroport de Toulouse-Blagnac; Brussels Airlines; TUI; DHL Aviation; Engie Laborelec; Air Cargo Belgium; Skytanking; skeyes; To70; Lux Mobility; the University of Hasselt; the Erasmus Centre for Urban, Port and Transport Economics; IES R&D; Sopra Steria; the Province of Flemish Brabant; Quatra; the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO); NMBS; and the Flanders Institute for Logistics.
Amongst the project’s goals is to “develop innovations and initiatives for an accelerated transition to a greener aviation”, Brussels Airport Company notes, with – at the time of writing – some 30 different projects that can largely be grouped around three themes: further decarbonisation, improving the quality of local environments and promoting a modal shift.
Taking the first of these three themes, one area of development of the Stargate programme is the testing of electric ground handling equipment. Over the past year and more, DHL Aviation – one of the partners within the consortium – has tested various types of electric ground handling equipment during operations, including electric high loaders and electric cargo tractors.
After what was described as an “extensive and positive test period”, Brussels Airport Company says that DHL will “soon be making a first significant investment in the electrification of its ground handling equipment, with the purchase of electric tractors, belt loaders and nose lifters for making its ground operations more sustainable”.
Plus, aviation fuel service provider Skytanking is also undertaking a large-scale test at Brussels of two fully electric hydrant fuel dispensers. These made-to-measure vehicles operated by fuel supplier Turkish Fuel Services are of a Belgian design and are being tested to gain the necessary insights into charging solutions and battery performance, Brussels Airport Company says.
The test programme will run until March this year, and will help determine the ideal battery size for each truck and the optimum charging infrastructure. In the future, Skytanking wants to develop, test and use its own 100% electric hydrant fuel dispensers; this will go hand in hand with the implementation of the necessary infrastructural changes at the airport, the airport operator adds.
Stargate has also seen the creation of digital twins, 3D-models of airports that map the energy use and CO2 emissions generated by various on-airport processes, so that a calculation can be made of where improvements and adjustments are possible and necessary. For example, it is possible to map the impact of additional solar panel parks before actually installing them.
The first version of the digital twin for the four partner airports – Brussels, Athens, Budapest and Toulouse – was developed in collaboration with Stargate partner Integrated Environmental Solutions Ltd (IES).
Athens International Airport and Budapest Airport, in collaboration with Air Cargo Belgium, are also currently working on the digitisation of their cargo operations modelled after the Digital Green Lane at Brussels Airport. Such a facility represents a more automated, paperless process for cargo handling and a better use of the available capacity, meaning shorter waiting times for trucks landside and thereby reducing CO2 emissions at the airports.
The future introduction of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is another component of Stargate. An important change since the start of the project has been the availability since January this year of the NATO pipeline to Brussels Airport for the transport of sustainable fuels in addition to kerosene. This exceptionally sustainable means of transport for SAF will reduce the need for a large-scale blending plant; as a result, alternative actions are currently being considered, such as the small-scale mixing of biofuel with kerosene with high blend ratios, the airport operator points out.
Plus, Quatra, as Stargate partner for the supply of used deep-frying oil that can be processed in these sustainable fuels, has taken a brand-new OiloBox truck into use in the past year. This truck will be used to collect household deep-frying oil from collection points in the vicinity of Brussels Airport. To encourage people to participate in this Belgian example of circularity, a collaboration is also being started with Vandemoortele and a population survey and awareness raising campaign will follow, in cooperation with the University of Hasselt and the Province of Flemish Brabant.
Meanwhile, Aéroport de Toulouse-Blagnac and Athens International Airport are collaborating with the University of Hasselt and aviation consultancy agency To70 to consider how the introduction of SAF and the use of sustainable aviation fuels at these airports could also be promoted.
Christel Vandenhouten, head of sustainable development at Brussels Airport Company, explains more about the thinking behind Stargate and the airport operator’s role in the programme. At the end of 2020, following the European Commission’s call to submit projects aimed at moving to more sustainable transportation within the scope of the EU Green Deal, Brussels Airport Company took the initiative to bring together 21 partners who would strive to make a considerable contribution to achieving climate goals in the short term, she recalls.
“With the Stargate project, Brussels Airport acting as project leader together with this consortium intends to accelerate the transition to a sustainable and zero-carbon airport and build green airports as multimodal hubs for sustainable and smart mobility.”
The partnership was granted 24.8 million Euros (US$26.5 million) by the European Commission to realise the Stargate project over a period of five years, starting in November 2021.
Vandenhouten continues: “The European Commission’s call provided a framework, and together with our partners we identified concrete projects we wanted to test and realise, based on the context of our specific airports, the knowledge we can share and the knowledge the partners involved can attribute.”
Plenty of progress has already been made within the five-year programme’s scope, Vandenhouten believes. As we have seen, DHL has already confirmed that it will be purchasing electric tractors, belt loaders and nose lifters to make its ground operations more sustainable. It requires an investment to switch to these electric vehicles, as well as the necessary charging infrastructure and the training of employees, she says, observing that, as with electric cars, the move to electric will happen gradually within the industry.
There are options other than electric battery power, too. Toulouse Airport has experience in the field of vehicles that run on hydrogen, so Brussels is also looking into possibilities in that field. “We are determining locations to possibly put a mobile refuelling station at our airport to be able to test hydrogen-fuelled vehicles,” Vandenhouten informs. “We will be mapping which ground handling equipment already exists on hydrogen to decide if we will be testing those as well.”
Additionally, within the scope of Stargate, Brussels Airport Company is also planning to test the potential for electric taxiing using an electric TaxiBot, a project scheduled for this year. TaxiBot is a semi-robotic, pilot-controlled tow tractor.
The Skytanking testing is, meanwhile, ongoing. Skytanking is the first company to test first-generation industrial lithium battery hydrant dispensers on a European airport of the size of Brussels, which entails significant distances.
The intention is to deploy the electric fuel hydrant dispensers “to the maximum”, fuelling between 15 and 25 aircraft a day with a single charge per vehicle, Vandenhouten says. The project is being carried out now, in the [2022-23] winter season and the information that is being collected – until March 2023 – will help to determine the ideal battery size for each truck and the optimal charging infrastructure.
This way, the lifespan and cost efficiency of the customised fuel hydrant dispensers Skytanking will develop over the coming years will perfectly match the characteristics of airports like Brussels Airport – or other European airports that can replicate this concept, Vandenhouten advises.
“The switch to electric equipment is a great improvement in terms of emissions, engine noise and air quality – both for the surroundings and for employees working on the tarmac,” she considers. “It will require some time getting used to the new vehicles, given that these require a completely different approach to make sure they are charged at the right time. Needless to say, employees are thoroughly trained to work safely with the new equipment. During the current test phase, DHL will analyse the operational impact, the battery autonomy and noise measurement.”
Electric equipment is not new to Brussels Airport. It already has a fleet of 30 electric buses providing passenger transport on the tarmac, and it is also planning a survey of all its handlers about the development of charging stations airside (covering locations and capacities) to identify and provide the infrastructure they would need.
Sustainability is key
“At Brussels Airport, our sustainable approach is embedded in everything we do,” Vandenhouten declares. “We focus on decarbonisation, circular principles, a better living environment, the airport as an intermodal hub and inclusion and diversity.
“In terms of energy use, we are evolving towards renewable energy production through on-site solar panels to reduce the purchase of green electricity. We are electrifying our corporate car fleet and we are also investing in circularity with a sustainable label for new buildings and a higher recycling rate.
“On top of that, we are reducing noise nuisance and the impact on air quality to improve the living environment, for example through the use of greener landings and innovative techniques for test runs.”
That is not all. “Through our airport tariffs, we give airlines an incentive to renew their fleet and deploy newer aircraft,” Vandenhouten remarks. “Today, there is already a differentiation based on noise. In our new tariffs, which are in the final phase of approval by the regulator, the environmental component will become even larger and will also take NOx into account.
“Furthermore, we are evolving into a multimodal transport hub with bike infrastructure, buses, trams and trains to help passengers, employees, visitors and local residents to move about sustainably.
“Lastly, we focus on our most important strength: our employees. Sustainability will be a fundamental driver of our HR [human resources] policy for the coming years, as we believe it is important to create a positive environment in which people can grow.”