Hands down, one of the most pressing issues of the new decade is climate change. When a 17-year-old activist has the world’s attention – and sparred successfully on the subject with President Trump – you know it’s no longer business as usual.
Time magazine just named the Swedish climate champion, Greta Thunberg, Person of the Year. She even chose to emphasize the impact of air travel by sailing on a zero-emission sea craft to the September climate conference at the United Nations in New York. As the realities of climate change take hold in the public eye, the aerospace industry increasingly finds itself in the crosshairs of this disruptive discussion.
Every day, travelers are being encouraged to rethink their choices when it comes to air transportation and to reconsider their next flight for their annual tropical vacation as a personal commitment to positively affecting climate change. Although single-person vehicle transportation, a car, is still the largest contributor to greenhouse gases, that number is drastically reduced when a passenger is added to the vehicle. Per passenger, per mile travelled, aircraft are much larger polluters.
The good news is that the aerospace industry is responding to these challenges by some amazing innovations to mitigate its own effects on climate change. In fact, the industry annually commits multi-billions of dollars in research and development aimed at not only reducing greenhouse emissions, but also improving fuel economy, noise reduction and overall passenger comfort.
How is it happening? In fascinating ways, with new materials, smart tech developments and changes in manufacturing and design.
For starters, advances in composite component manufacturing – 3D printing – is revolutionizing how planes are prototyped and assembled. Developing planes in this manner allows for the redevelopment and rethinking of almost all assembled parts. This includes the use of lightweight materials that provide the same strength profiles of much heavier components. Similarly, the application of 3D printing accelerates prototyping which exponentially speeds R&D and the development of new lightweight and more efficient aircraft.
Much of the push to climate-responsible innovation has been promoted by the global aviation industry. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, proudly has 193 member states and industry partners that have adopted a baseline global emissions measurement to reach carbon-neutrality in 2020 through efficiency and carbon offsets.
Not only are the innovations in aviation focused on the nuts and bolts of the aircraft, but also on the demanding logistics of air flight.
NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cooperatively developed an algorithm that’s being used to monitor and predict air traffic to reduce airport circling, excessive taxiing and idling. This use of smart technology also improves the passenger experience with more on-time arrivals and departures – and help to eliminate the mad scramble of passengers running from gate to gate to grab a connecting flight.
You’ll also find improvements in aircraft cabins, thanks to the introduction of composite components used in their construction, such as carbon fiber reinforced plastic. Carbon fiber is not only lighter than the traditional aluminum airframes, it is significantly stronger.
Current aircraft are roughly 75 to 80% aluminum, the practice since the early 1900s when German aircraft designer Hugo Junkers built the first full-metal airplane using an aluminum alloy. Based on his work, the American Boeing-P26 fighter, nicknamed the “Peashooter,” was produced in quantity for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the 1930s.
Now Qatar Airways’ Airbus A350 is among the first carbon fiber cabins flown commercially and the weight and strength of this construction means fuel savings and a possible impact on the bane of all travelers: jet lag.
While many of us chalk it up to time zone hopping, studies have shown that jet lag is akin to the altitude sickness often experienced by mountain climbers ascending beyond 6,000 feet. The body has to work harder to generate the same amount of oxygen above 6,000 feet as it does at sea level. After three-plus hours in the air on a plane, the body starts to show signs of fatigue, including headache, loss of appetite and low energy, which are all symptoms of altitude sickness.
The newer carbon fiber construction is much less susceptible to the type of metal fatigue aluminum airframes encounter, so planes can operate with higher than traditional cabin pressures. Rather than feeling like you’ve ascended to 8,000 feet, the new cabins can simulate the equivalent air pressure and oxygen content of a more comfortable 6,000 feet. That translates to greater comfort for passengers and crew.
Another more visible example of air travel’s attempts at consistent fuel savings and emissions reductions are the small, up-angled winglets seen on most planes today.
Although the aerodynamics are complex, simply explained, airplanes achieve lift due to the distribution of air pressure flowing around the wings. A higher pressure on the underside of the wings compared to the top surface results in lift, but also drag. Lift and drag together affect fuel consumption, and a better ratio (more lift, less drag) improves fuel consumption.
Part of the drag experienced by a moving airplane is generated at the wing tips, resulting from positive air pressure under the wings swirling up and over the wings, creating wing-tip vortices. Winglets interrupt the development of these vortices and reduce overall drag on the plane, which can result in fuel economy savings of 5% with a correlated reduction in those emissions which contribute to climate change.
And still more innovation is on the horizon.
Boeing has taken an industry leadership role when it comes to eco-innovation with its ecoDemonstrator program and working with an array of aerospace partners. This program is designed to take new ideas from the lab to the air and to provide real-life feedback on these new concepts. The ecoDemonstrator deploys a different airplane each year as a flying laboratory. Projects include fuel and emissions reductions, noise mitigation, and passenger and crew safety and comfort.
Since its inception in 2012, the ecoDemonstrator has tested more than 100 innovations. Fully one-third of these have been approved for implementation with the others still in ongoing testing, like new materials to make planes lighter and more efficient and advanced flight deck technologies for better control and safety. Many of the approved projects are aimed at smarter cabin features, such as LED lighting to mimic our natural circadian rhythms, all to enhance the flight experience and lesson carbon impact.
For example, advances include active flow control on the vertical tail of aircraft, so tails are smaller and have less drag, special sensors to visualize aerodynamics and improve wing designs, biofuels – especially bio-kerosene made from renewable plant products such as coconut and palm kernels, redesigned compact reverse thrusters for fuel savings and noise reduction.
Currently tests are underway to investigate fossil fuel and battery hybrids much like those seen in the automotive industry. Eelectrification is poised to have as significant an impact on aviation as the replacement of piston engines by gas turbines.
The gamechangers don’t stop there. Logistics enhancements include the streaming of flight data information versus onboard storage to the black box, optical and radar sensors to detect ground obstacles and collision avoidance systems and live data sharing to the airline’s logistics center with air traffic control for better routing and safety.
Now ice-phobic paint is used with low adhesive qualities to inhibit the buildup of ice and frost on planes. This reduces the need for de-icing and also repels insect buildup on the leading edge of wings, reducing drag and the need to wash aircraft as often.
Industry experts say we’re at the dawn of the third era of aviation, where sustainability is mission-critical. The results are bringing a new class of quieter and cleaner air transport to the skies.