Will we be flying the green skies someday?
Whenever I check my carbon footprint, I always do extremely well—until I get to the end when they ask the inevitable questions about air travel. As a writer, a consultant and a person who loves to see the world; travel has been a big part of who I’ve been, going back to high school, when I hitchhiked across the country, twice.
I know I am not alone in this. A number of friends and colleagues who are committed, green professionals, share the same Achilles heel that apparently results in a larger footprint. Of course, there are offsets, which can at least help assuage one’s conscience, but what I want to know is what is going to happen to air travel?
Can it be made energy efficient enough to continue to serve as many people as it does today and more given the growth that is projected? Will it become so expensive that only the wealthiest among us can afford it? Or will environmentally desperate governments of the future outlaw it altogether?
Obviously, you can tell which option I’m hoping for. So you won’t be surprised that I was glad to see that the FAA just awarded $125 million to five aircraft technology companies: Boeing, GE, Honeywell, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls-Royce-America to develop greener, more efficient aircraft as part of their Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions, and Noise, or CLEEN program. Each company will match those funds with an equal or greater amount of their own.
I am not necessarily a big fan of the government giving out large sums of money to the biggest corporations. With all that we read in the news these days, it’s hard to keep the nose from twitching when you think about the lobbying and that all-too-familiar chumminess factor. Not to mention that smaller companies are very often more willing to think out of the box and be more innovative. That being said, though, this is an awfully big problem and few companies have the kinds of resources necessary to pursue this kind of development.
Specifically, the FAA program goals are as follows:
- A 33% reduction in overall fuel burn
- A 60% reduction in NOx emissions during landing and take-off (LTO)
- A 32 dB reduction in noise level
- Reduced environmental impact with sustainable fuels
- Development of “drop-in” replacement fuels requiring no modifications
All of these goals are to be achieved by 2015 and are with reference to today’s technology.
Some of the new technologies that have been proposed by those winning the contracts include sustainable alternative aviation fuels; lighter and more efficient gas turbine engine components; noise-reducing engine nozzles; advanced wing trailing edges; optimized flight trajectories using onboard flight management systems; and open rotor and geared turbofan engines.
GE will be using the funds to assist in its development of three new technologies:
- The TAPS II combustor at the heart of their engines which is expected to achieve 16% better fuel economy
- Open Rotor, an unducted fan which is expected to realize 26% fuel savings, and
- The flight management system-air traffic management (FMS-ATM) system which essentially guides the planes in the most direct routes while maintaining safe separation distances between planes.
Pratt & Whitney will use its award to continue to evolve its PurePower PW1000G® geared turbofan engine. This engine, which received Popular Science Magazine’s 2009 “Best of What’s New Award” is expected to achieve 25-35% energy savings by the 2020’s.
Given the impact that air travel has on global warming and energy consumption today, (the IPCC estimates that air travel contributes 3.5% of global warming, which is expected to grow to 5% by 2050) these kinds of improvements will be significant. The question is, given how quickly the planet seems to be marching towards the brink of climate catastrophe, will they be significant enough?
RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, which just might have something to do with airplanes
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