7 Cool Innovations in Fuel Efficient Aviation

Image credit: DK Report via Stock High.

New Innovations May Help Reduce Aviation Emissions - Eventually
I've lost count of the number of times that TreeHugger has written about the aviation industry's vulnerability to high oil prices or the interconnections between flying and climate change. Yet it's hard to go without flying - especially when you have loved ones on the other side of the world. (UK activist and writer George Monbiot coined the term 'Love Miles' to describe the predicament many of us environmentally aware global citizens face.) But there are glimmers of hope. Fancy new concepts in aviation offer the potential of significant carbon savings - the only trouble is that most are a long way off from commercial application. But there are a few lower-tech innovations that are delivering emissions reductions here and now. Read on to find out more.
Turboprop Aircraft Making a Comeback
Ever conscious of the accusations of vaporware, I'm going to start with a technology that is in use today. Turboprop aircraft are making a comeback in a big way, and they offer impressive fuel savings over their jet engined counterparts. Between a higher seating capacity and greater fuel efficiency, Continental Airlines reckons it is saving as much as 30% in per passenger fuel costs in turboprop-powered flights it is running out of Newark airport. These savings are getting folks' attention - orders for Bombardier's Q400 quadrupled in 2007 thanks to rising fuel prices. The company as a whole has since been suffering in harder economic times, although we have no word on what that means for the turboprop aircraft in particular.


Blended Wing Aircraft Touted as the Next Big Thing
Next up is a slightly more long-term prospect for cutting fuel use. Blended wing concepts have gained a lot of attention over the years, from the SAX 40 Silent Aircraft Initiative, which claims efficiency improvements of 35% while also reducing noise significantly. Meanwhile NASA and Boeing have flown some test flights with a remote piloted X-48B blended wing, which achieved fuel efficiency reductions of around 27%. But even when we do finally see commercially viable blended wings gracing our skies, they are not without their own drawbacks - in particular, critics have raised concerns about passenger comfort when banking if seated out on the extremities of the 'wing'.


Ground Effect Aircraft Fly Low and Efficient
This is definitely pushing the boundaries of what might be called flying, but ground effect aircraft, which fly incredibly close to the ground, or sea, can deliver fuel savings of 40% or more. While the Russians designed various such craft in the cold war, the Focus 21 France ground effect aircraft aims to revive the concept for the 21st Century (albeit for a modest 15 passengers only). It seems that their utility is limited to calm inland seas though - I'd hate to see what happens when it hits a wave!


Landing Jumbos in 'Idle' Saves Fuel
Before I dive into some more space age dream craft, let's look at some other ideas that can and are being implemented now. Among the simplest, and possibly most impactful, are those that require little or no new technology - but simply a change in behaviors. Airways New Zealand, for example, has launched experiments in landing jumbos in idle to save fuel on their descent. Even simply slowing down an aircraft saves fuel. (As of course does cutting flights all together.)


Modern Airships Being Floated Again
OK - in case we get accused of being (gasp!) too realistic, let's dive back into the techno-aviation-porn. Airships seem to be on the rise again. And we're not talking about the old, clunky, sometimes explosive Zeppelins of old, but modern, sexy new creatures that offer the hope of efficient mass transport of goods and even people across the oceans. Whether it be the Turtle Airship or Aeroscraft, the idea has generated a lot of excitement - although any post on TreeHugger inevitably draws comments about 'peak helium', and a subsequent debate about whether hydrogen could be used instead. I guess the jury is still out on this one. Meanwhile real world applications seem somewhat limited to small airships for tourism and sight-seeing for the moment.


Fuel Cell Planes Will Fly - But How Far?
What about fuel cells? Not long ago everybody from Arnie to George W. were touting the 'hydrogen highway' - surely there are applications for our skies too? Way back in 2006 Justin wrote about Boeing's prototype zero emissions fuel cell plane, which at the time was due to take off within a year, and we did indeed see a short fuel cell powered flight in 2008 — though it's a long way off from any kind of commercial application. And I'm no climate scientist, but given that water vapour in the atmosphere is known to warm the climate, the claim that it emits "nothing but water" isn't completely reassuring - though I would love to hear comments from folks who know better.


Image credit: Ecotality
New Aviation Biofuels Offer Some Hope
Finally, while new technologies may help in cutting the amount of fuel used, many airlines are also looking at switching the type of fuel they put in their engines. Biofuels test flights seem to be coming thick and fast these days. Encouragingly, many companies seem to be seeking alternatives to food crops grown on arable lands - Continental recently tested a fuel blended from algae and jatropha feedstocks, and Air New Zealand is setting ambitious goals for sustainable biofuels. Sustainability of feedstocks aside, Japan Airlines has even found biofueled flights to be more efficient.

So there we have it - some interesting and exciting developments in the world of aviation, but no magic bullets on the horizon. It looks like flying will remain an energy, and carbon, intensive activity for many, many years to come. But while long haul flying may remain a 'necessity' (or at least highly desireable) for most of us, there are undoubtedly better, and more pleasant, alternatives out there for so many of the shorter journeys that make up a huge part of current air travel. Here's a few ideas to get you started:

More on Alternatives to Flying
Planet Green's Top Public Transportation Tips
Re-Viewing Video Conferencing
Seat 61: Get There Without Flying
Eurostar to Cut Emissions 25% and Offset the Rest
Spain's New High-Speed Rail Challenging the Airlines
High-Speed Rail Comes to the Americas
CA High-Speed Rail Initiative: "If We Don't Pass This, We Will Never Have High-Speed Trains in the US"

Tags: Airplanes | Air Travel | Energy Efficiency

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