A new approach is being taken through innovative design to reduce the environmental burden commercial flight is having on the environment. How effective can it and other measures be in reducing the harm?
A project has emerged in Europe to make commercial aircraft far more fuel efficient through innovative design. Dutch airline KLM has partnered with Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) with a view towards further development of the innovatively designed aircraft.
The jet — known as the ‘Flying-V’ — turns jet design on its head by carving out a unique v shaped aircraft architecture. It’s understood that this new approach in terms of aerodynamic design would facilitate housing of all of the aircraft’s components in the wings of the plane.
Weight is one of the main factors in determining the fuel efficiency of an aircraft. This new design will mean a significant reduction in weight — which in turn, will facilitate a 20% saving on fuel.
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That estimated saving has been benchmarked against the current frontrunner in terms of commercial passenger aircraft — the Airbus A350-900. Whilst achieving greater fuel efficiency, KLM claims that the Flying-V will have the ability to carry 314 passengers — similar to that of the Airbus.
Whilst a scale model of the new aircraft is expected over the next couple of months, it will still take quite some time to develop it. KLM don’t expect the plane to enter service until 2040 at the earliest.
Innovative design is just one way in which greater efficiency and sustainability are being tackled in aviation. The use of biofuels and development of electric planes are other areas that are seeing a body of work in terms of research and development.
United Airlines has been utilizing biofuels on an ongoing daily basis since 2016. It has been working with AltAir Fuels to facilitate this. In a separate initiative, it has paired with Fulcrum BioEnergy to develop sustainable aviation fuel refineries in the vicinity of its US hubs.
The Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) in the United Arab Emirates has been working on the development of biofuel for the aviation industry for some time. Earlier this year, in collaboration with Etihad Airways, it facilitated the first commercial flight using locally produced biofuel.
Swedish airline SAS also started to use biofuel on some of its flights earlier this year, with plans to cut emissions by 25% over the next ten years, whilst running domestic flights purely on biofuel.
Biofuels are likely to be a partial solution to the problem. The amount of land required to provide the raw material for biofuels for total aviation needs would simply be an unsustainable prospect.
Electric aircraft — incorporating pure electric and hybrid electric is another area which is active in terms of research and development. US-based Collins Aerospace opened a lab dedicated to the development of an electric power system to propel the next generation of electric aircraft back in April.
Naturally, industry stalwarts such as Boeing, Airbus and others are involved in developing this technology. However, there are major obstacles to overcome. Electric systems require heavy battery systems, and weight is a fundamental issue where aircraft are concerned.
There is a body of work in progress on the technology, but we are unlikely to see any such solution reach fruition in terms of passenger aircraft for quite some years to come. Even then, it’s likely to be an option on short haul routes — rather than long haul.
Air Travel Takes Off
Enabling air transportation for all sections of society has had a profoundly positive economic and social impact. However, it has come with an environmental cost through the increased use of fossil fuel based aviation fuel.
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — an international body founded by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) — finds that civil aviation is one of the fastest growing means of transportation.
Air passenger numbers are expected to double to 8.2 billion by 2037. The sector has a global growth rate of 5.9% and is contributing 5% towards climate change related to human activity, with the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide.
More Work Required
A body of work has been done to tackle the issue of sustainable flight. However, research efforts are still very much a work in progress.
Advances made through system efficiency gains, improved aircraft design or alternative powertrain and fuel systems are going to take years to see through to full and sustainable commercial use. For right now, a foundation has been laid by early innovators and startups towards that goal.