In 2010 NASA launched its N+3 initiative which awarded four major airlines extensive funds to research, design and develop more environmentally friendly aircraft. Lockheed Martin, MIT, GE Aviation and Boeing have been charged with the challenge to create a commercial plane that would expend 75% less emissions and consume 70% less fuel. Not a small undertaking but significant progress has already been made, especially by Boeing who have a promising hybrid aircraft in development stage.
The concepts for Sugar Volt (Subsonic Ultra Green Aircraft Research) report massive improvements in both operational and environmental performance which are due mainly to the inclusion of a propulsion system run on an electric battery gas turbine. This technology can reduce the total amount of fuel burnt by more than 75% and total energy used by 55%. Hybrid electric propulsion can also lessen the distance required for takeoff and decrease noise pollution. In addition the emissions of nitrous oxide and CO2 will be cut down considerably.
Another highly encouraging development occurred outside of the N+3 initiative and this was The Solar Impulse project. In June this year the team completed its first intercontinental flight in the fully solar powered plane. The aircraft itself is an impressive bit of sustainable engineering. Its massive wingspan is constructed out of ultra-lightweight materials and can takeoff in silence as it’s propelled by four electric motors which drastically reduce noise pollution and eradicate any carbon emissions. Although the Solar Impulse plane cannot yet carry commercial passengers it certainly does carry a promising message – that 100% environmental air travel is possible.
It seems that environmental concerns are perforating every area of the aviation industry of late, even companies who charter private jets are working to improve the eco credentials of their day-to-day operations and of their brand as a whole. Fuel expenditure takes up the largest portion of every airline’s annual budget so making their planes more fuel efficient is an important goal both ecologically and economically.
With the private sector embracing sustainable aviation, NASA investing millions of dollars into research as well as significant developments occurring in solar-powered flight and electric aircraft, commercially viable planes that don’t leave a huge black carbon footprint could soon be seen on the horizon.
Article by Zachary Colbert.