Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Future of Flight

The Future of Flight: "

Next-generation planes will use innovative design to boost efficiency

By all accounts, aviation is the most carbon-intensive form of transportation we use. But when you’ve got a million-pound aircraft, slipping the surly bonds of Earth isn’t an easy task . Engineers are constantly working to make aircraft more fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly, and several new technological innovations may finally make the future of flight a sustainable one.

energyNOW! correspondent Josh Zepps recently looked into efforts by the aviation industry to meet the growing demand for a greener way to fly with new aircraft design and advanced fuels. The world is on the brink of an aviation revolution, and within the next few years passengers could will be flying on planes that are radically different – and could have a zero-emission carbon footprint.

NASA’s Langley Air and Space Research Center is one location pushing the limits of energy-efficient planes – focusing on reducing weight and drag, and improving propulsion efficiency. Beyond being the home of advanced wind tunnel testing facility, Langley has developed a new composite material 10 percent lighter than the most advanced carbon fiber composite materials on the market today, and 25-30 percent lighter than aluminum. The new material, PRSEUS, is almost as thin and malleable as a piece of cloth, but exponentially stronger.

NASA isn’t stopping at making their planes lighter, though. They’re also working to make their fuel much more sustainable. At the Green Lab facility in Cleveland, researchers are using science to improve the oil content of biofuel plants, and improve their ability to grow in areas currently off-limits to crop production, like salty coastal areas. Improving aviation biofuels could also help cut costs, since the expected fuel bill for global commercial aviation in 2011 alone is expected to be $39 billion.

Not to be outdone, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working on NextGen, an advanced system for guiding commercial flights. The system uses satellite data instead of radar, and will allow air traffic controllers to plot more efficient flight paths. Through increased efficiency, the FAA estimates it could save 1.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel and cut 14 million tons of CO2 by 2018.

So while these next-generation technologies may be in their earliest days, innovations like the kind being developed at NASA and the FAA means the sky is the limit when it comes to flying green. “We have proven, over the last three years or so, that it’s not only feasible, it’s absolutely doable,” said Bill Glover, Vice President of Environmental and Aviation Policy at Boeing.

To see all these innovations in action, be sure to watch the full segment above.


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