American Airlines and Boeing Test the Future of Green Aviation

If you happen to look up into the skies over Montana in the next few months, you might catch a glimpse of the ecoDemonstrator. This  Next-Generation  737-800 is on loan from American Airlines to Boeing, which is modding it out to serve as a test bed for new sustainable aviation technologies including fuel efficiency,  noise reduction strategies and sustainable materials.

The ecoDemonstrator is just one piece of a larger effort designed to meet growing challenges to the airline industry, especially in the context of global warming. Foremost among these is managing greenhouse emissions in an era of increasing airline passenger travel and air shipping. Development near airports and public health issues represent another set of concerns, as does the need to transition to materials that can be repurposed or recycled when their useful lifespan is over.

Green Flight and the Bottom Line

The multi-year ecoDemonstrator partnership also includes the Federal Aviation Administration, which is contributing funding through its Continuous Lower Energy and Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) program for 2012 and 2013.

Some of the main elements of the ecoDemonstrator (recently on display at the Farnborough Air Show) illustrate how new conservation technologies can directly benefit the bottom line while creating secondary benefits for customers and the general public.

One key test for the ecoDemonstrator will be “adaptive” wing trailing edges that change to achieve more aerodynamic efficiency during takeoff, ascent, cruising and descent.

In addition to saving fuel, the adaptive edges are expected to reduce noise during takeoff.

Similarly, the ecoDemonstrator is being outfitted to change the airflow of the engine exhaust during different phases of flight, which is also expected to reduce both fuel consumption and noise.

Another modification is a series of actuators that will help reduce engine vibration, to reduce both noise and maintenance costs. It is also expected to achieve a smoother ride for passengers.

Rounding out the modifications is a carpet made of tiles that can be replaced individually when worn, rather than having to pull up larger sections. The tiles will be made from recycled materials and are recyclable, which will save on disposal costs.

New Fuel Strategies for Aviation

Passengers and the general public may not notice the effects of some of the other modifications, but they could result in significant bottom line savings for airlines.

The ecoDemonstrator will carry a zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell to power the its electrical systems, rather than drawing power from the engines. The fuel cell can also store excess energy when demand is low.

The aircraft’s flight management system will be run through energy efficient iPad type devices. Aside from saving electricity, the new system is expected to save fuel by determining the most fuel-efficient routes around weather constraints and other variables.

Aviation and a Sustainable Future

The aviation industry is by definition an innovation pioneer, so it’s not surprising that on a broad basis the U.S.  aviation industry has pushed forward with new sustainable strategies, many of which are aimed at reducing its dependence on a fuel source bedeviled by price spikes and supply risk issues.

In addition to FAA, under President Obama a number of other federal agencies have stepped up with funding in support of this effort.

NASA, for example, issued an $11 million Green Flight Challenge designed to encourage innovative new strategies for reducing fuel consumption, noise, and air pollution.

Since domestically sourced biofuels are an important factor in supply issues as well as greenhouse gas management, earlier this month the U.S. Navy, Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture partnered in a $62 million public-private effort to develop drop-in aviation biofuel as well as biodiesel.

That announcement was followed by a $420 million, public-private initiative through the Department of Defense to build three biorefineries on a commercial scale.

A number of federal agencies are also supporting the newly formed Midwest Aviation Sustainable Biofuels Initiative spearheaded by United Airlines, Boeing, and UOP (a Honeywell company) along with the Chicago Department of Aviation and the Clean Energy Trust.

That dovetails with a number of national and international (through NATO) public-private initiatives with the aviation and biofuel industries to promote the commercial market for biofuels, including a major rural economic development and  biofuel crop production program announced by the President last summer.

Image: Some rights reserved by ph0rk.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.


Tina writes frequently for Triple Pundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

One response

  1. But, extremist Republicans and Christians want to  destroy the aircraft industry – 

    Evil Inhofe failed to include the right to a non-melted runway from his investor’s AGW.  “After pointing out an airplane got stuck in heat softened asphalt, Al Gore misses the fact that many of the surface temps used in climate come from airports” (racketeering found on 7/13/12) (Marc ‘Mengele’ Morano whistle-sucker perfuming the stink at  Evil “Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK), took a major step forward … “This is a big victory … I have helped an untold number of pilots facing the pressure of dealing with the Federal Aviation Administration … system”” (“Inhofe Applauds Passage of Pilot’s Bill of Rights”; Posted by: Scott Montgomery;, 7/1/12).

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