Emerging Technologies for making Aviation Sustainable: Anti-insect Paint and Electric Planes

When you think about Aviation, insects don’t come across as a big problem in your mind. But did you know that by just avoiding insects during takeoff the airlines fuel bills and emissions can come down by 10%. Well that is an interesting fact isn’t it. NASA has already been exploring this excellent idea and lately, NASA tested hi-tech coatings that made dead insects slide off the wings. They came up with one design that delivered around 40% reduction in the insect residue.

Many steps like these are being taken in order to make aviation sustainable. Did you know that the aviation sector accounts for 2% of all the man-made CO2 emissions. But according to a recent report by the European parliament, if the climate change ambition levels don’t rise then the aviation emissions could make up 22% of the global emissions by the year 2050.

Looking at the positive side, progress is definitely being made with time. If we compare the modern Boeing 737 with the first 737 in 1967 then, the modern one burns half the fuel per passenger as the older one did. The Winglets that have been introduced have also contributed in the reduction of fuel consumption by 4%. The efficient turbofan engines produce greater thrust from lesser fuel, the carbon brakes also save hundreds of kilos per aircraft, the economy seats are much stronger and lighter and also checking the aircraft for scratched/chipped paint can reduce the fuel bill by 0.5%. Many more steps are being taken for making aviation sustainable.

One of NASA’s project demonstrated lightweight wing flaps that morphed shape and a new tailfin design, they promise to cut the fuel usage by another 0.5%. Flying planes in a smarter way can also save on the fuel consumption. It is said that a smooth descent can save up to 40% of the fuel burnt during an aircraft’s final. Also efficient takeoff & landing and smarter air traffic control in Europe and US, with more direct routes and less circling could save tens of millions of tonnes of CO2 over the next decade. The EasyJet is also about to do a trial of a hydrogen fuel-cell system in order to reduce emissions during taxiing, this consumes around 4% of the airlines entire fuel budget.

The aviation revenues have almost doubled over the past decade from $379bn in the year 2004 to $727bn in the year 2015. This has been possible due to the increase in low-cost travelling. The Paris climate agreement did not include aviation but last month around 23 countries including UK & US agreed to the first global standards to cut commercial aircraft emissions in future planes and this will be achieved through innovation in the aircraft design and fuel efficient technologies.

Another step for achieving a more sustainable aviation is by the introduction of new wing shapes. Wings can be either braced with struts or the plane itself can be turned into a giant wing. With a hybrid or a blended wing body an aircraft can generate much more lift and also have a superior fuel economy. NASA expects to build experimental X-planes within next 10 years. But how these innovative designs  will be regulated or whether they will be liked by the passengers or not, is still a big question. One more possibility that can emerge with time, is of air travel going electric. Airbus already demonstrated a two-seater named as E-Fan, that can remain aloft for almost an hour. Airbus is now giving importance to the production of electric and hybrid planes. NASA is also said to be working towards an experimental 9 passenger electric aircraft that comprises of dozens of small propeller engines spaced out along the length of the wing. This configuration promises a smooth as well as an efficient ride.

Flash of radiating activity at nuclear radiation it is dangerous to mankind
Flash of radiating activity at nuclear radiation it is dangerous to mankind

NASA expects to name this plane Sceptor (Scalable Convergent Electric Propulsion Technology) which will be flying by 2019. Sceptor will have lithium-ion batteries and 500kW power plant. The hybrid electric planes could also recover energy when descending to recharge their batteries, just like regenerative braking in electric cars. Astro Teller – the captain of moonshots at Google has revealed that the technology giant had been working on an aircraft which is lighter than air, variable-buoyancy cargo airship. He wrote that “This could get the cost of shipping closer to boats than planes, get the carbon footprint of moving cargo lower than for boats, and get speeds of transport halfway between boats and planes – all without needing runways”. Google has said that the cost of building an initial prototype is around $200m. On this Teller said that “This is way too expensive for us to get the first data point on whether we’re on the right track”. This might sound a huge amount to you but Boeing invested about $32bn for developing the 787 Dreamliner and the airlines in US spend an amount of $50bn annually on jet fuel.

So seeing all this we can derive that many small and steady steps are being taken in order to make aviation more sustainable. But seeing the growth in the aviation sector in the past few years, there is a huge challenge in front of us of attaining sustainability in aviation as fast as we can.

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