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NASA’s $11 Million Green Flight Challenge Pays Off

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Leadership & Transparency

NASA has challenged the aviation industry to come up with a new concept for a next generation airplane, and preliminary results indicate the the next generation of air travelers will get to ride in something that looks far more sleek and modern than the current crop of planes. More importantly, the ride will be more sustainable, too. The challenge calls for significant advances in not one but three key areas all at the same time: fuel consumption, air pollution, and noise.  The results of the first phase have just come in, and they point the way to – well, let’s just say that two out of three ain’t bad.

NASA's green flight challenge

The new concepts were submitted by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman under a set of research grants totaling $11 million awarded last year.

Aside from submitting a nifty batch of futuristic-looking renderings, each of the three companies came reasonably close to NASA’s goal of reducing fuel consumption by 50 percent, using 1998 as a baseline year.

All three also met the pollution reduction goal of 50 percent, which NASA pegged to nitrogen oxide emissions at takeoff and landing.

The sticky wicket, unfortunately for those living close to airports, was noise reduction. NASA set an 83 percent reduction as the goal, measured in terms of the area affected by airport noise. As politely described by Kathy Barnstorff of NASA’s Langley Research Center, “noise reduction capabilities varied” among the three submissions.

The key to fuel efficient flight

On the positive side, according to Barnstorff one major pivot point for a breakthrough in fuel reduction is the emergence of new lightweight composite materials. Until now, the lack of next-generation materials has been something of a bottleneck; Lockheed Martin in particular has been sitting on a fuel-saving wing concept for about thirty years, waiting for the development of advanced materials and other new technologies to carry it through.

In addition, the aviation industry is already trending toward improvement. Last year, for example, Boeing introduced a fuel efficient 787 Dreamliner and 747-8, and American Airlines upped its sustainability profile with an order of 460 new fuel efficient jets.

A national policy for fuel efficient flight

NASA issued the green challenge as part of its Environmentally Responsible Aviation (ERA) program, which is designed to buffer the environment - and our ears - from an expected doubling in the use of air transportation in the US over the next twenty years.

Essentially, ERA is in a race against time. Within the next five to ten years, the program hopes to meet interim goals for noise, fuel efficiency and pollution set out in the National Aeronautics Research and Development Plan, which coordinates various federal agencies to support priorities including national defense and safety as well as environmental protection and fuel efficiency.

The result is probably going to be a sea change in the way a typical airplane looks, since ERA is focusing specifically on “unconventional aircraft configurations that improve fuel efficiency.”

Look for them soon at an airport near you – the end goal is to have advanced-technology airplanes in service by 2025.

Image: Fuel efficient airplane courtesy of NASA/Lockheed.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit 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.

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